Contradicting Identities

It’s hard to place where religion and morality intersect, inform and interfere. Living in the age of ISIS, gay marriage, Je suis Charlie and new female bishops it’s obvious that the tectonic plates of religious tolerance, expression and interpretation are building tensions which explode into violence, intolerance and isolation. Many of Dawkins’ followers started arguing a few years ago that science and religion were fundamentally incompatible. This seems to have further polarised debates as people sink into their existing positions (or at least are increasingly being painted as doing so). There’s little room in this new order of BBC balance (two equally blinkered fools bickering) for people to have multifaceted identities in which their politics, morals, religion and role in society contradict each other. No, you must go into your box with Others Like You.

Marcus Borg, a hero of mine, died recently. He was a man who was able to live in contradictions in which many of us feel very uncomfortable. He was a liberal but also a life-long Christian. He believed in God but he did not believe almost any of Jesus’s miracles happened. He believed the Bible to be crucially important but also almost entirely factually incorrect (and not even intended to be correct). I found great comfort in his writings as someone who has similarly felt conflicted and internally contradicted (if not on the same points of doctrine).

I think of myself as being broadly in a scientific profession (as a software engineer) but believe in an unseen deity. I’m liberal but belong to the Scottish Episcopal church which is not always so. I came to faith later in life under what I believe to be my own volition but have always lived under a broadly Christian cultural framework. People in the church, software industry and who are politically active liberals encourage me to renounce the others and seek a personal consistency. I reject that.

What we seem to have lost amongst unifying our identities is the idea that their disparity can inform and even improve the others. A somewhat stupid example: I’ve found the robustness principle for designing software (“be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others”) to also be an excellent approach to morality. I’ve found taking a more scientific approach to scriptural contradictions (e.g. where gospels disagree accept subsets rather than supersets) to be enlightening. I’ve found Jesus’s teachings to provoke me into deeper understandings of feminism, intersectionality, privilege and socialism. The sad fact is that many religious people would see things bleeding between these lines as weakness, lack of faith or heresy rather than a strength.

What is religious morality anyway? To some it seems to be “do what the scriptures say” or “do what God says”. Well, the scriptures and God seem to tell some people to behead journalists, shoot doctors who perform abortions and deny people human rights due to their sexuality. It has to be more than this; we cannot simply shut ourselves into an echo chamber where we look only to the past for some sort of moral guidance. We need to be informed by science, argument, logic and reason but also mysticism, love and empathy. These things must bleed into each other lest we become mere robots or romantics. Religion will survive (its death has been predicted for hundreds of years) but if we wish it to reach new people then the leadership of our religions must embrace the secular and liberal values of tolerance and eschew a mentality of inherent superiority. We must listen more to the voices we find distasteful, understand them and hope that we are changed for the better (because we must do better).