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The faith trap

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Q:What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn't this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?

At a lunch party I was placed next to a well-known female rabbi, now ennobled. She asked me, somewhat belligerently, whether I said grace when it was my turn to do so at High Table dinner in my Oxford college. "Yes," I replied, "Out of simple good manners and respect for the medieval traditions of my college." She attacked me for hypocrisy, and was not amused when I quoted the great philosopher A J (Freddy) Ayer, who also was quite happy to recite the grace at the same college when he chanced to be Senior Fellow: "I will not utter falsehoods", said Freddy genially, "But I have no objection to making meaningless statements."

Humor was lost on this rabbi, so I tried to see if a serious explanation would go over any better. "To you, Rabbi, imprecations to God are meaningful, and therefore cannot sincerely come from an atheist. To me, 'Benedictus benedicat' is as empty and meaningless as 'Lord love a duck' or 'Stone the crows.' Just as I don't seriously expect anybody to respond to my words by hurling rocks at innocent corvids, so it is a matter of blissful indifference to me whether I invoke the mealtime blessings of a non-existent deity or not. Non-existent is the operative phrase. In the convivial atmosphere of a college dinner, I cheerfully take the road of good manners and refrain from calling ostentatious attention to my unbelief - an unbelief, by the way, which is shared by most of my colleagues, and they too are quite happy to fall in with tradition." Once again, the rabbi didn't get it.
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TAGGED: ATHEISM, RELIGION, RICHARD DAWKINS


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