The Enigma of what comes After Death

I’ve recently been reading an old classic that had hitherto eluded my reading list. It’s called Reflections on Life after Life by Dr Raymond Moody. It’s actually the sequel to his original book simply called Life After Life, but I couldn’t find that one in the library. They were both written around the 1970s and they spawned a whole new genre that many others have since taken up with enthusiasm (though not always with good sense).

The basic premise is this: Dr Moody is a medical doctor who has been involved in a large number of resuscitations – people who are clinically dead, and are then brought back to life. Usually this happens within that brief window of opportunity before permanent brain damage sets in, somewhere around 5 minutes. There have been rare cases that broke that record and still came out perfectly normal. Medicine is like that; the moment you take something for granted a patient comes along to demolish it!

But the thing his books focus on is the weird experience that some of these patients (probably a minority) are able to recall after they have been brought back to life. In the first book (apparently) he outlines a number of general characteristics of these experiences that seem to be common among these patients. These include things that have now become a standard part of our culture and even our language. The tunnel, the light at the end, the beautiful place, the meeting with dead relatives, the shining person who emanates peace and joy, the command to return to life on earth, the reluctant return. In the second book he outlines some additional features that are by no means as common as those in the first book, but which are pretty interesting, such as the confused and lost looking souls and the sense of having ‘all knowledge’ suddenly become available to you (wouldn’t that be great?!) He also addresses some very interesting and important methodological issues in his research (which should set to rest many of the criticisms sceptics have raised, for he is quite thorough in his methodology) and most interestingly, speculates as to where this kind of research might lead in the future.

It makes for absolutely intriguing reading, but I wonder what these experiences mean. It would be all too easy to simply say “Of course these are just confirmation of what the Bible has been saying all along”, but the indomitable sceptic within me cannot help but ask questions:

Most of Dr Moody’s patients were Caucasian Christians. Would these experiences be any different in India? Or Tibet?

What research has been done to examine the possibility of these visions being hallucinations resulting from the trauma of illness or side effects of medications used, quite often in high doses in operations and resuscitations?

The list could go on. I recently came across a much more recent study that seemed to promise a definite answer as to the nature of these experiences. In some cases, patients have described going through a feeling that they somehow left their bodies. They rose up in the air and could look down on themselves, surrounded by medical staff frantically trying to save their lives. Some of these patients describe the scene with exquisite detail, including things that by all the laws of logic they could not know. For example, one case in another book on the subject, Beyond Death’s Door by Dr Maurice Rawlings, has the patient describing the colour of the tie worn by a doctor who came into the room after he had become unconscious, and left the room before he regained consciousness. How could he do that???

Well, Professor Bruce Greyson in the USA thought up a brilliant experiment to try to settle the question. He set up a laptop computer on the top of a tall cabinet in a room where patients who are having pacemakers inserted have their hearts stopped temporarily as part of the procedure. On this laptop, a programme was installed that displays a random picture on the screen. There is absolutely no way for anyone to know which picture is going to be displayed beforehand, and afterwards, the laptop is removed without any of the medical staff or the patients seeing the picture. The idea was that if a patient had a near death experience and felt themselves rising up and looking down on the scene, they would see the top of the cabinet, and identify the picture on the laptop screen. If they correctly identified that picture, that would indicate that the experience was undoubtedly genuine and not just a hallucination or drug side effect.

But even the best laid plans of mice and men …

Unfortunately, I discovered that the research did not answer the question. Why? Because in the whole series of patients in the study’s time frame, not one single one of them happened to have a near death experience! Drats! Those doctors are obviously too good to be any good for such an experiment! Oh well; at least it illustrates the kind of experiment that might one day truly tell us whether these experiences are genuine or not. I for one will be waiting with bated breath, but I won’t be holding my breath long enough to pass out and have a near death experience.

You can check out Dr Moody’s work at

Fr Ant

Is Genesis Myth?

Thankyou to Tony for his comment on my last post in which he brings up the approach taught by most Catholic Schools in Australia to the first 11 chapters of Genesis. I have come across these ideas before, and I think they are becoming so widespread in the Catholic Church they deserve some attention. In some circles, this approach is called the New Theology and basically jettisons any claim that any of the events in the first 11 chapters of Genesis ever actually happened. That’s everything up to and including the Tower of Babel, so for them, the real history begins with Abraham, and all that came before is called a ‘myth’, which, as Tony points out, may not necessarily mean what you think it means!

The concept of a myth is a very fluid one it seems. CS Lewis has much to say on the subject of ‘true myths’ in some of his essays (can’t remember exactly which ones) in which he more or less concludes that the purpose of a ‘myth’ is the moral or message, and that whether the myth actually happened or not, or whether it happened a little differenty is really of no great importance. I suppose you can think of the parables of Jesus which clearly were fiction, but intended to convey a lesson. Lewis of course was talking generally, but I think that the Catholics are applying a similar approach to the first 11 chapters of Genesis.

I think there are problems with this sort of approach. Once you start categorising bits of the Bible as possibly not having an historic basis, where might this not lead you? I wonder if an extension of this kind of thinking is responsible for people like Episcopalian retired Bishop John Shelby Spong rejecting any historical miracles of Jesus, together with the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and Ascension and so on.

At the other end of the spectrum you have stubborn fundamentalists who insist that every word of the Bible must be taken as absolute literal truth (LITERAL being the crucial word here) and thus, for example, deny any possibility that the universe is older than about 6,000 years, in contradiction to lots of pretty solid evidence and to the fact that the language of Genesis in no way insists upon this kind of interpretation.

We have to learn from the mistakes of the past. The medieval Church in the West had no business decreeing that the earth was the centre of the universe – what right did they have to do that? The Church is responsible for spiritual knowledge and teachings. The people look to the Church for guidance and wisdom about far more than just spiritual life, but the Church must always resist the temptation that such respect brings and never go outside its limits of competency. On a smaller scale, a parish priest is often asked whether to take this job or that, or to invest in this project, or send the kids to this school. He has a responsibility to make it clear to those who ask for such advice that any advice given is that of a friend, not that of a mouthpiece of God … unless, of course, God has told him otherwise 😉

Sure, one can draw inferences from the Bible about the laws of nature, but they will always be nothing more than guesses, and we must beware of giving them the status of Infallible Truths or putting them on a par with the doctrine and dogma of the Church. Science is always changing. If we as a Church throw our lot in with evolution, or the Big Bang, or even quantum physics, there is bound to come a time perhaps centuries later when these things will be superceded and the Church will be left with egg on its face, much as happened in the great crisis over Gallileo and Copernicus. There is no need for this, especially given that the Bible does not seem terribly interested in giving humanity the natural secrets of the cosmos – rather, it is occupied with the spiritual secrets of truth and love and holiness. We must accept that just because we are a Church, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to know everything and have the answer to every question! There are times when the only honest thing to do is to admit we don’t know. Which brings to mind a nice proverb: “He is wisest who knows himself for a fool”.

So, yes, my favoured approach would be to say simply something along these lines:

“The science, as far as it goes, can be comfortably accomodated within the Bible’s framework. But that’s all we can say. Whether the science of today describes reality fully and accurately is not a question for the Church to answer – it is for time to answer.”

Fr Ant

The Evolution Enigma

Last Night’s CCP Meeting was on the question of evolution. An intriguing and often highly emotional topic, it is one of those areas where, supposedly, science and fatih clash.

I’ve been doing a little bit of reading on the topic lately, and I have found there are a few conclusions that I think one is safe to draw about the current state of affairs. Please allow me to share them with you.

1. Evolution as a scientific theory is elegant, relatively simple, and in many ways quite a beautiful concept, if you look at it from a purely scientific point of view.

2. Looked at against the wider background of our existence, it can be a very ugly concept. I have no doubt whatsoever that some of the worst atrocities committed by humans in the past century were justified, whether consciously or subconsciously, by an evolutionary world view. Hitler’s purification of the German race is an attempt to take control of evolution. What gave him the right to do so? Because he was the “Fittest” and it is the fittest who should survive. The deaths of millions in the gas chambers is no more than the necessary by product of this law of nature, and we should not weep over it. Or so he thought.

3. Evolution still has many gaping holes. We started to look at some last night but time constraints meant we had to leave the rest for another session. Chief among the unresolved issues are the incredible probabilities against putting together DNA in the right sequence merely by chance, the vexed question of how the first life could possibly have arisen, and the lack of any sensible mechanism for the introduction of new genes into an organism’s genome. There are more, but these are my favorites.

4. Even if one day it should become apparent that evolution is the true cause of life on Earth beyond a shadow of a doubt, I cannot see how this would affect our faith. The Bible is interested in telling us what God did. How He did it is really His concern, and although we get a glimpse, we must not expect to be able to understand His ways. I still can’t understand how my mechanic diagnoses and fixes problems in my car, much less the mechanism of the Creation of the whole Cosmos! But to me, if the universe really can produce life all by itself, naturally and without any supernatural input, that would be an even greater miracle. I might be able to get some wood together and build a chair. Sure it would take some time, and it would probably wobble, but I think I could do it. What I don’t think I could do is build a machine that builds chairs without any help from me. Now that’s hard! So if God built a universe that can produce life without any supernatural input from Him, that would be a far greater miracle than if He had built each species individually.

5. There is, however, the case of microevolution as opposed to macroevolution. Macroevolution involves one species evolving into another species, and as such requires whole new genes to be inserted into the organism’s genetic code. There simply is no known mechanism for this to happen in most cases, and there does not seem to be any possibility for us finding one. But Microevolution involves the slightest fiddling with the existing genetic code, such as that which produces a tall or a short person, the colour of your eyes, or the resistance of bacteria against an antibiotic. Microevolution is implied in the Bible since all the different races of humans in the world are descended from just one family of eight people (Noah’s family). Clearly, all the variations between races must have arisen by a mechanism such as microevolution. But there is no evidence that I can see that can overcome the need for whole new genes in macroevolution.

6. Many people accept or reject evolution for reasons other than the actual science. If you want there not to be a God, you can use evolution as way of supporting your case that He didn’t have to be around to make us. And equally, if you want there to be a God, you can find the many, many holes there are in the theory of evolution. So how can one come to a genuinely objective Truth? I’m not sure anyone can. I admit freely that I am biased. I believe in God, for many other reason, and so I come to the evolution question expecting God to be a part of the true answer. And I find more than enough evidence to fulfil that expectation. But the fact is that the jury still out. Evolution is not fact, not macroevolution, anyway. So until we find unavoidably compelling evidence one way or the other, I suppose people will continue to choose their side on the basis of other factors.

7. I don’t think we should be ‘afraid’ of evolution. Sometimes Christians speak as though there was a demon called evolution, and we must not dabble with evil spirits, so stay right away! But evolution is not a demon, it is an idea, and ideas have no personalities or motivations. They can be right or wrong, they can tend towards causing evil or good, but in the end, they are just ideas. I think it is good for a Christian to understand the concept of evolution well, and to also be aware of all its shortcomings.

In the final analysis, our understanding of our universe is constantly changing, constantly being updated as new information becomes available. Personally, I suspect that in a few hundred years’ time the theory of evolution will have been replaced by some other explanation that we cannot even imagine today, much as Gallileo could not possibly have anticipated quantum physics.

But I don’t think I’ll be around to see it. Then again, by then I will be occupied with far more important things…

Fr Ant

One FLEW out of the Atheist Nest

I’ve just finished reading the latest book by British philosopher, Antony Flew. He is now in his eighties, and has come to a conclusion that has startled the world. The title of the book sums up his conclusion quite nicely:

“There is A God”

The subtitle explains the amazement of the world:

“How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.

The preface of the book explains that from the 1950s onwards, Flew basically laid the foundations of modern atheism in a series of ground-breaking papers. For example, he contended that atheism should be the ‘default’ position – we should start NOT believing in God. The burden of proof then lies with the faithful, to prove His existence, rather than the atheist having to prove He doesn’t exist. he suggested that we have not yet described how it is logically possible for a God to exist who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who exists everywhere.

Flew’s philosophy was the foundation upon which modern atheists such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith) built their ideas and arguments against the existence of God. As you might imagine, they are not at all pleased with his turnaround!

So what has changed his mind? In a nutshell, he has come to the conclusion that there are things in this universe that are best explained by the existence of God. His arguments are all based on reason, logic. For example, how does something come from nothing? – there is no other sensible way to explain the existence fot he universe. The incredible fine-tuning of the universe in general and earth in particular that makes our existence possible – this is powerful evidence of Someone who had an intention, and designed the universe to be just so. The mystery of our consciousness; the fact that we know that we exist – how can matter, which is physical, produce consciousness, which is clearly non-physical?

Flew has been accused of giving in to fear in his old age (he is 85). As his inevitable death approaches, they say, he is hedging his bets. He is accepting belief in God just in case it turns out to be true, laying Pascal’s Wager. But this analysis couldn’t be further from the truth. Flew goes to great pains to clarify that although he has accepted the existence of God as truth, he is still sceptical about an afterlife. And indeed, his history and arguments in this book show clearly that his conclusions are the result of a very honest analysis of the issues and are not at all motivated by any emotion whatsoever.

His attitude to Christianity is interesting. He seems to be saying that if any religion is true, it is most likely to be Christianity, and there is an interesting dialogue at the end of the book between Flew and Bishop NT Wright, a Christian theologian, in which Wright presents a powerful defence of the Christian faith. Perhaps Flew’s final reflection in the book sums up his current position best:

I am very much impressed with Bishop Wright’s approach … Is it possible that there has been or can be divine revelation? As I said, you cannot limit the possibilities of omnipotence except to produce the logically impossible. Everything else is open to omnipotence.

This book is not for everyone – the arguments in it are often quite complex and some background knowledge of philosophy and its ways and jargon is most helpful. But Flew’s style of writing is a delight; he is one of those old-style English writers who uses the English langauge so elegantly and economically.

Who knows if he will eventually come to a faith in Christ?

He is, after all, only 85…

Fr Ant

The Unknown God

Who Is God?

Our lives as Christians are meant to be built upon a personal relationship with God. Our Lord Jesus came down to earth to reveal to us the nature and personality of God in a way we could accept, and to dwell among us without destroying us with His unbearable glory. Daily we pray to Him. We strive to run our lives according to His commands and we seek to do that which pleases Him. Ask anyone in church, even the naughtiest of kids, “Do you love God?” and with even hesitating, a confident “yes!” will be the response.

Yet, who is the God we love? St Augustine repeatedly asks this question in his Confessions, giving some beautiful answers, but I am trapped in the 21st century, in the age of logic and reason and the scientific method. Can these tell me anything about God?

I think so. Let’s see how far it can take us…

I mentioned in a comment following a recent post that the theory of a Big Bang forces the 21st century seeker for truth to admit there must have been a beginning to the universe. Some have begun to look for ways around this, but to my mind (and that of many others, including atheists) none of the attempts are worth taking seriously. If you must have a beginning, then you must have a beginner, a First Cause that is itself without a cause. Thus, cosmology plus a little basic logic leads to the conclusion that the uncaused First Cause, whom we call ‘God’, is actually essential, is necessary, if anything is to exist at all. And we think we exist, since we are here, asking the question (cogito ergo sum*).

But beyond that, it is surprisingly difficult to really know anything specific and with certainty about God. Without ‘special revelation’, that is the Bible and the Church traditions we have recieved via the Apostles, ‘general revelation’, that is, what we can see in our universe, reveals only faint hints, glimpses, as it were, “in a mirror, dimly” (I Cor. 13).

We deduce that God is great from the hugeness of this universe that surrounds. We further deduce that we are but a tiny, tiny part of that creation, making the fact that God loves us little specks of dust even more incredible. But how big is God? The answer is, He isn’t. He is neither big, nor small. He is neither short or tall, wide or thin. The usual description we use is that God is unlimited in space, yet this is, strictly speaking, not true either. As far as we can understand, God cannot be measured using the three dimensions of space we are used to, for He created that three dimensional space, and He Himself existed when it was not, and exists now “outside” of space, whatever that may mean. If you try to characterise God using the language and concepts of three dimensional, or even n-dimensional space, you cannot succeed.

Neither is it possible to define God in terms of time. How old is God? We usually say that God is eternal, and clarify that by saying that He has no beginning and no end. But that inevitably implies that God exists ‘inside’ time, He is actually on the timeline, so to speak, and differs from everything else in that they have a beginning (and sometimes an end) whereas He does not. But this is wrong. God made time. He exists without time. He existed ‘before’ time began, whatever that may mean. Any description of God that involves time will therefore be inadequate and inaccurate. And we have no language that does not depend on the concept of time. Try it now. Try to make a sentence that describes God (or anything else) without using a time-dependent word or concept.

“God is love”?

‘is’ denotes the present, as opposed to the past or the future, and is thus a time-dependent concept.

What kind of being is God? We usually call God, “He”. In recent times, the feminists have taken great umbridge to this sexism and Bibles have been published referring to God as “She”“Our Mother who art in heaven”, and so on. Traditionalists are outraged by this modern editing of a text over 3,500 years old in some places. Who is right? Strictly speaking, neither. Gender is a characteristic of physical living beings – animals and birds and reptiles and fish. Humans have gender because they need to reproduce, but angels have no gender. Thus did our Lord answer those who asked who in heaven would be the husband of the woman who had married five men during her life by saying, “They neither marry nor are they given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven”.

Sure, we use masculine words to express God’s superior strength, or feminine language to communicate His gentle nurturing love, but all these are human words applied to One who is far, far beyond humanity, infinitely far, in fact. ‘He’ and ‘She’ are thus woefully inadequate. ‘It’ sounds downright rude, lowering God to the level of a senseless stone or a coffee table. We have no other pronouns in our language! Perhaps we should invent one, to be reserved especially for God and for Him alone? ‘Thee’ perhaps, echoing the Greek root word for God, theo?

I could go on.

The disappointing fact is that God is just so far beyond our imagination, experience or comprehension that we simply cannot know Him. Everything we think about Him is bound to be inadequate, and thus, strictly speaking, wrong. The Ancient Fathers, especially in the east, recognised this, and some of them insisted that we cannot truthfully describe God using positive terms; saying what He is, but we can only use negative terms; we can only rule out what He is not. You might have noticed that St Gregory’s Anaphora lists a whole lot of negatives: “the ineffable; the unseen; the uncontainable; without beginning; the eternal ; the timeless; the limitless; the unsearchable; the unchanging.”

It is just as well, then, that God Himself chose to tell us about Himself. Of course, He must use limited language that we can understand, but when He does so, He highlights for us the things that are important, the things that matter. It’s a bit like your teacher highlighting the bits that will be in the upcoming exam for you so you don’t have to waste time studying the whole textbook!

And just what is it that God chooses to highlight? Is it e=mc^2? Is it the structure of the electron shells around the nucleaus of an atom? Is it how to accurately predict weather conditions? No, it is none of these. What He points out to us is…

“God is love”.

Our curiosity leads us to try to understand God with our brains, and by and large, we fail miserably. But perhaps that is not the important thing. Perhaps the important thing is to feel God’s love for us in our hearts, and to love Him from our hearts in return. Knowing about God is nowhere near as important as knowing God. The mind can tell us a little about the character of God, but it is in living with God daily, and minute by minute; in feeling that He surrounds us and dwells within us; in ‘touching Him’ when we live by His commandments and ‘meeting Him’ in every tiny act of kindness towards another; in these things do we come to know God.

Even if I knew nothing about God, just knowing Him would be enough.

“To the Unknown God” – the inscription on an altar, seized upon by St Paul to start preaching to the philosophical Greeks. A God Unknown, but Loving … and that is more than enough.

Fr Ant

  • * cogito ergo sum = I think, therefore I am: Descartes.
  • Thoughts on Evolution and Creation

    Thankyou to those who have sent in such interesting and thought provoking comments to my last post. Here is my two-cents worth…

    The Catholic Church and some varieties of Protestant Churches (non-evangelical ones) have moved officially towards accepting the Theory of Evolution as the process God used to create life on the Earth. I would note that even if this turned out to be true, it would still have no effect whatsoever on either the accuracy of the Bible or on our Christian faith, for as Tony points out, the Old Testament has been interpreted allegorically since the time of Origen in the 3rd century BC.

    However, there remain some fatally serious problems with the Theory of Macro Evolution as an explanation for life on earth. Among these are:

    1. How did life begin?

    2. How can huge chunks of very organised information be spliced into an existing genome by mere chance?

    3. How can incredibly complex systems, such as the mammalian eye or the clotting cascade in the blood, evolve gradually when in fact the absence of any one component of that system renders the whole system useless? (This is the basic premise of the “Intelligent Design” movement.)

    And there are others. A recent court case in the USA ruled that Intelligent Design was not science. I believe that ruling was flawed, though, since the case was not really about whether ID is science or not, but about whether it should be allowed to be taught in Science classes in schools. Clearly, there is a much deeper political agenda involved in the second form of the question, since there is a strong backlash against the “Christian Right” raging in the US at the moment. Most people saw this as just one more way that the Christian Right was trying to impose its standards on the very government of the land, and fought bitterly because of that reason. I read the judgment (you can google it easily) and it seems to me quite biased, though framed in perfect legalese of course.

    Atheists in the US have made quite a fuss over this judgement, which they see as some kind of proof that ID is fantasy. Personally, I would not go to a Judge to tell me whether God created the world. Why should he know anymore about it than anyone else? As someone pointed out to me recently, scientists have no more knowledge of philosophy or the laws of logic than anyone else, yet those like Dawkins present themselves as being authorities on questions of religion, which are not scientific question at all, but philosophical ones.

    There are different forms of Creationism, and yes, our Church does not subscribe to the literal form that says the world was created in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago. I would firstly note that any dogmatic assertions about the creation are not to be trusted – none of us was there! And the only One who was there did not give us a modern scientific account of events, but an account intended to help us understand who we owe our existence to. Anything beyond the actual words of the Bible is interpretation, and you will find good interpretation and bad interpretation, but it is in the end, on this matter, nothing more than interpretation.

    Personally, I have no trouble fitting any current scientific theory into what Genesis tells us. There are some discarded theories that I would have certainly had trouble with, such as the Steady State Theory of the universe, that said that the universe has no beginning and no end, but that it has simply existed forever. This would be in direct contradiction to what Genesis plainly tells us: “In the beginning, God created…” The fact that scientists were literally forced by the facts to accept that the universe did have a beginning (rather than existing forever) is to me one of the greatest vindications of the truth of Genesis and of the Bible as a whole.

    All comments welcomed!

    Fr Ant

    You Have No Choice But To Read This…

    I’ve been doing a little research recently into the question of Free Will. Are we really free to choose our own course in life? This has turned up a new line of reasoning (for me) that surprised me a little bit. In its simplest form, it runs like this:

    How does the atheist explain free will?

    To the atheist, not only does God not exist, but the only things that exist are those that are made of atoms and energy. Thus, there is nothing more to the human brain than the cells from which it is made and the electrical impulses and chemical transmitters that communicate between those cells, all of which we can see and study. Therefore, all human thought, all human emotions, all human intelligence, even human consciousness (knowing that I exist) are all nothing more than the result of the millions of connections in the physical human brain.

    Looked at from another angle, this would mean that if we were clever enough, we could in theory build a supercomputer that is the exact counterpart of a human brain – same pattern of connections on its microchips as your brain has between its brain cells.

    Would this computer thus be human? Would it have a mind? Would it be conscious? Would it be alive?

    I don’t think so. I think that the fact that we have free will is very powerful proof against our mind being nothing more than connections between cells. Here’s why:

    All matter and energy must follow the laws of nature. The charge of an electron is always the same, chemical reactions always run the same given the same circumstances and so on. Tossing a coin is not actually random: if you knew the exact starting position, the exact force applied, the exact effect of air friction etc, you could predict whether it was going to be heads or tails with 100% accuracy every time! Imagine what you could do with the Lotto numbers …

    In the same way, if our brains are only cells following the laws of nature, then there simply is no free will. Our thoughts, feelings and emotions were all determined for us from the moment of our conception, and there is nothing we can do to change that. Just think about that – who will choose to change your decision? You can’t because all you can think with is your brain, and you have no choice in how your brain behaves – it has to obey the laws of nature. If that were true, then you actually had no choice wheter or not to read this blog.

    Now this is a huge dilemma for the atheist. We all KNOW that we have free will. When provoked with the question of free will, the famous Samuel Johnson replied, “I know I have free will, and there’s an end to the matter!” But how can free will exist in a universe where the laws of nature cannot be fiddled with?

    It seems to me that the only sane and rational answer is to suggest that there is an aspect to our ‘mind’ that is not made of matter or energy. Call this aspect what ever you like (Christians call it the spirit), but if free will exists, then the only thing that can drive it is something that is not bound by the laws of nature. Something that can be genuinely independent, and thus make genuinely independent choices.

    Atheists don’t like this, since you can’t examine a spirit under a microscope. We may never be able to pin down what exactly a spirit is. But they will continue, no doubt to search for natural explanations for both consciousness and free will. My reading so far suggests this is not only a daunting task, but may well one day be proved to be a totally impossible task.

    Deep stuff!

    Fr Ant

    Looking Forward to Going Back to the Future

    I can’t believe it! It has finally happened. A dream has come true: the ancient and venerable Coptic Orthodox Tradition has at last met another of my loves, Science Fiction! I’m talking of course, about the brilliantly produced and exquisitely acted Back to The Future: Coptic Version currently showing on Youtube and produced by our own band of merry men.

    I loved the remote controlled Church. No more straining to reach those wall-clingers with the Holy Water at the end of the liturgy! But I did miss the interactive screen embedded in the mangaleya – we’re endlessly searching for missing Katameros Books (Readings for the liturgy) and Synaxarium Books.

    But seriously, what IS likely to face our Church in the decades to come? There is an old saying that to be forewarned is to be forearmed, or in other words, if we can guess what we’re in for, we can prepare for it. Well, here are three of what I see as the major challenges we as a Church in Sydney are likely to face between now and 2038 AD…


    The trend towards atheism is nothing new in Western society; it has been slowly growing ever since the rebellious days of the Renaissance when everything was called into question. What is new is that atheism has now reached a stage where it is set to become the majority view in Western society. Already, in many universities and TAFEs Christians are marginalised and made fun of because of their faith. But authors such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith) have brought their ‘gospel’ right into the mainstream media.
    What I fear is that the God-free mindset is becoming more and more embedded in popular culture. It is becoming the ‘default’ foundation upon which to build the stories that influence our lives in movies, TV, books and so on. For example, I recently heard a Professor of Philosophy discussing the philosophy behind the hit TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He pointed out that the creator of the series is an avowed atheist. Not surprisingly, it is human beings who defeat the powers of darkness by their own efforts, while any religious characters in the plot are portrayed as weak and irrelevant. In fact, contrary to the long tradition of vampire stories, the vampires in this series do not care about crucifixes or holy water! These are subtle points, but they are all the more dangerous for their subtlety.


    The first generation of Copts to come to Australia were highly motivated and fiercly driven to succeed. If they weren’t, they probably wouldn’t have had the initiative to leave their homeland for a new and strange country.
    The second generation of Copts in Australia have grown up guided by this strong motivation from their parents to work hard and do well in life, whether spiritual or material. They have seen how hard their parents had to struggle to carve out a life for themselves, but they have had it a lot easier than their parents. They have grown up with English as their first language. have gone to school in Australia, and have had the benefit of a wider social network to help them through life.
    We are beginning only now to see the third generation of Australian Copts as they grow up and approach maturity. Of the three generations, perhaps they will have life easiest of all. They will have the benefit of parents who are already reasonably comfortable in life, who will provide them with many comforts they will take for granted. What effect will this have on their personalities? How will it affect their spirituality? Will they be willing to put in the effort to stand for a two hour liturgy to enter into the depths of the presence of God, or will they demand an abbreviated 15 minute version because that’s all their media-shrunken attention spans can cope with?
    It is well known that material wealth makes it harder to be spiritually strong. Our Lord Jesus Himself warned us that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to enter through the eye of the needle. How will this privileged generation fare? And what can we do to build their personalities strong so that they do not miss out spiritually?


    Western society has been through the sexual revolution of the sixties, when the pill separated sexual activity from having children. Over the ensuing decades, a new morality seems to have become accepted, one in which pre-marital sex, adultery, pornography and divorce are all pretty standard and acceptable. So far, active members of Christian Churches have been fairly insulated from these changes, but many of them are now cracking and giving in. Not long ago, an Anglican bishop was heavily criticised for daring to suggest that couples should not live together before getting married.
    Fortunately, the Coptic Church will not be alone on this one, as the other Orthodox denominations and the Catholic Church are still holding on to their Bible principles pretty strongly too. But what will happen as society becomes less and less Christian, and we find our congregation becoming increasingly isolated in their morality? How can we keep our future generations strongly devoted to living true Biblical Christianity, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks?

    What do you think? You may or may not agree with my guesses. Perhaps you see something else as being a major issue? Please share your thoughts (write a comment, below) so we can all get thinking about it, praying about it and prepared!

    By the way, if you would like a glimpse into the future of our Church, take a peek at:

    Part 1 –

    Part 2 –

    Judging by these fine examples of Coptic youth, our Church is in good hands … I think …

    Fr Ant

    The Atheist Crusade

    Thank you Tony for your comment and the links you suggested. I found the Alvin Plantinga essay very interesting. He very accurately indentifies some of Dawkins’ most glaring errors of method and logic, but his arguments in response range from the totally convincing to the pretty shaky.

    Alister McGrath has written a short book in response to Dawkins’ The God Delusion in particular which is pretty strong, but a little too short! However, his previous books on the general topic of Atheism in the 21st century will satisfy the hunger and curiosity of those who want a deeper and more detailed dissection of the emptiness of today’s atheist philosophy.

    One of the main faults in all of these atheist evanglists’ position is a very simple ignorance of a critically important fact: they insist on claiming that they, and all of “Science”, are totally objective – like a computer or a machine or a methematical equation. they believe that when they consider evidence they do so without any bias and with a pure and undiluted cast-iron commitment to finding the truth, whatever that truth may be. Even if they don’t state this in black and white (some do, some don’t) you can see it in their words and attitudes as clearly as you can see the sun on a sunny day. This, they believe, gives them a sort of credibility that sets their conclusions head and shoulders above those of others who are silly enough to still have religious faith.

    My problem with this is that no one, no human being is that objective. Our nature does not allow us to be, and those who come closest to it have to work incredibly hard on themselves for years to build into their thought patterns even a semblance of true objectivity, when it comes to questions of philosophy or theology. One of the more objective atheists I have come across are mathematician Roger Penrose and Mind Specialist Sir Robert Winston, both of whom have a healthy respect for those who reasonably hold religious views, and both of whom cringe at the kind of bombast that people like Dawkins put out.

    The fact is that whenever we look at a piece of evidence, we are doing so with a raft of pre-assumptions. Those pre-assumptions must necessarily colour the conclusions we draw from the evidence. Our minds are too limited to be able to genuinely consider ALL the possible interpretations of a given set of data, so we take the easy way – begin by considering the interpretation you feel most comfortable with, and see if you can make it work somehow. We will only ever take the considerable trouble of testing out alternative interpretations if our first interpretation is proved totally wrong.

    The history of science (and the practice of science today) offers a myriad of examples that prove this is universally true. You need only to look at the lengths to which Ptolemy and his intellectual children went to prop up the theory that the earth is the centre of the universe. For 1,500 years, the most incredible gymnastics of the mind were required to explain how the sun, moon and planets move in the sky, assuming they all orbit the earth. Even when Copernicus came up with the simple (and true) explanation that the planets and earth all orbit the SUN, the scientific establishment of his day rejected it. Why? Because his theory didn’t work? NO, it worked just as well as Ptolemy’s in predicting where these heavenly bodies should be. Because it was too complicated? No, it was far, far simpler than Ptolemy’s model. The simple fact is that the greatest minds of that age had other reasons for wanting the earth to be at the centre of the universe, and this bias prevented them from seeing the truth.

    If scientists today wish to pretend that they are free of any such bias, then it is truly they who are deluded. You need only read Dawkins’ opinions on religious organisations, his utter contempt for people who have a religious faith, his characterisation of religions as child abusers because they teach their children to follow their faith from a young age (I am not kidding – he devotes a whole chapter to this accusation), to understand that he is anything but an objective scientist. He has a huge weight of prejudices that clearly affect his judgment. It is the prejudice, not the evidence, that makes Dawkins so strong a defender of atheism.

    Of course, this means that those on the other side of the argument are also prejudiced. Yep. That is true. But the difference is that we know that, and admit it to ourselves and to others. Yes, a Christian is biased towards believing in God – it’s called faith. We have to have a prejudice of some kind, and we happen to have chosen this particular prejudice for a raft of good reasons that I won’t try to squash into this little blog. But the fact that we know that we’re prejudiced, that we admit it, and that we even know exactly what the nature of our prejudice is, means that we can allow for it in our examination of evidence. And, we can ask ourselves honestly, “If I didn’t have that prejudice, would I see this evidence differently? And if so, how?”

    Again, I emphasise: it is only because we know our bias that we can control for it. A scientist like Dawkins who is unaware or refuses to acknowledge his bias cannot control for it, and will therefore often draw the wrong conclusions. This is exactly what he has done in The God Delusion.


    Fr Ant

    Giving God a Bad Name

    I have now come across a grand total of THREE people who have looked on this blog, so I’d better get active!

    There have been a lot of attacks on the Christian faith recently. You might have noticed Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion on the best sellers list for some months now. French atheist philosopher Michel Onfray recently visitied Australia and caused a big stir. He was publicising his latest book called The Atheist Manifesto. And then there is Christopher Hitchens and his latest book, God Is Not Great ( aplay on the Muslim confession of “Allaho Akbar” = God is great).

    Why this sudden outburst of Atheist propaganda?

    I think there are probably two main factors. The first is that 9/11 caused a lot of unhappiness witht he religion that is supposedly behind it, Islam. Personally, I do not believe that Islam necessarily condones terrorism. But I do believe that there are parts of the Quran and the hadith that could be taken out of context and used as justification for such atrocities. The saddest thing about the whole matter is that the ‘sensible’ Muslim community and the leadership of religious Islam has been very very slow to condemn the violence. Even today, their statements against violence have tended to be very lukewarm, although the new Mufti of Australia, Melbourne’s Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam, seems to be much more sensible; so far…

    People have reacted strongly to this. The three authors I mentioned above all blame religion for most of the evils and violence in the world. Their views are not new – they have all been saying the same thing for decades. What IS new is that after 9/11, people are far more willing to listen to them. The problem is, though, that they throw the baby out with the bath water! Yes, religion, like anything else in life, can be used for great good or for great evil. Their approach is that religion can only produce evil, so we should be rid of it. They purposely ignore all the good that religion does in people’s lives. One of them, Christopher Hitchens, even goes so far as to attack Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and has written widely of his dislike and disrespect for her.

    Mother Teresa? Wow! Now that tells you a lot more about Mr Hitchens than it does about Mother Teresa!

    The second factor is the growing power of American Protestant fundamentalists in politics. As you probably already know, Southern baptists have increased their political influence greatly, and both Bill Clinton and Goerge W Bush have come under their umbrella. This has resulted in a situation where President Bush can publicly state that God told him to invade Iraq. What’s wrong with this? What’s wrong is that I am pretty sure that God told him no such thing! He is simply using God to back up his own philosophy, whether sincerely or deceitfully, we may never know.

    This opens the Christian faith to attack. “Your God tells you to invade Iraq, and kill thousands of innocent women and children? Well then, we want nothing to do with your God!” That’s pretty much the reaction the above authors have expressed, and sadly, they have found a lot of sympathetic hearts out there.

    The latest Australian census data shows “No Religion” to be growing at an amazing rate. It is likely that this means that many people who were Christian in name only are now being more honest and putting ‘No Religion’ instead of the Church of their parents, but it is sad, for I ma sure that such abuses of faith as those above have indeed turned many sincere people away from God.

    And that’s the big issue here, and the issue that all those athiest authors seem to avoid. All this evil does not come from the religion itself, it comes from the abuse of the religion. I can speak with confidence only for Christianity, but it is certain that Christ never intended His followers to be doing the sort of things our friend President Bush has been up to, and to associate Jesus with those actions is almost blasphemy!

    I think it is a really wake up call for all of us. It is a warning to all Christians that we must get back to the basics of our faith and not allow it to be hijacked and corrupted in these ways.The Kingdom of God was never meant to be an earthly kingdom. Sure, we have to get involved in the society around us, and strive to be a light in the midst of the darkness, but if we allow that very darkness itself to enter our hearts, haw can we shine? If the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned?

    So we MUST build our own lives with God first. All that we do in society must be firmly grounded in the foundation of a sincere, Biblical life with Christ. He must be the one who speaks and acts through us, not we ourselves, and this requires a lot of honesty and humility on our part, not to mention genuine submission to Him.

    We are in the midst of a major battle, and the temperature is rising. I think that over the next 10-20 years, this direct attack from atheism is going to be the biggest danger to our Church in Australia. We have to start equipping ourselves from now, if we are to be prepared to meet it head on…