It’s not religion that propels ISIS…

God 4.0 - storm clouds

Rise of the Right

Western right wing populism is growing steadily by the day. Its target is often immigrants, foreigners and of course Muslims. Fear that fascism is spreading across the world is real and justified.  So now might be a good time to remind ourselves of a study by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point.

Reported in the Guardian, the study found that the “vast majority of almost 1,200 [ISIS] militants surveyed had no formal religious education and had not adhered to Islam for their entire lives”.

That point matters because the rise of fascism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes aim at a group of people: migrants, Muslims, Jews whoever, and then preaches a populist message. A message designed to create hate and division sweeping those touting the message to power.

That’s how Brexit happened, how Trump got elected and how the far right is trying to ride the same wave in France, Germany and elsewhere.

Playing into Their Hands

But what that CTC study is telling us is that it isn’t Islam that drives ISIS and other groups spewing an authoritarian agenda, it’s alienation and fanatical idea of what God “wants”.

That’s why ideas like banning Muslims entering the US or creating a Muslim registry do worse than miss the point. They perpetuate a lie that the enemy is a religion. It’s not. It’s the warped interpretation of a religion. And blaming Islam does the work of ISIS for it.

Expanding the Gray Zone

It removes what ISIS calls the “gray zone”: a place where Islam coexists with the rest of the world. What ISIS wants is world divided into crusaders and jihadists. And we in the West help create that world every time we brand all Muslims terrorists. After all if everyone is attacking your religion and calling you a terrorist (though you’ve done nothing) how long will it take before you join a group like ISIS because it feels like they’re your only friend?

A Common God

If we’re serious about defeating ISIS doesn’t it begin by expanding the gray zone? Of finding a common humanity? Of finding a commonality in the way we see God?

Zuckerberg, Religion and God

God 4.0 - Getty image of Mark Zuckerberg

Here’s a story you may have missed over the holidays: Mark Zuckerberg, having wished a “Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah” to all on his social network site, responded to a question.

The question was, “Aren’t you an atheist?” and his answer was this: “No. I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.”

Who knows why he chose to share that on Facebook; the comments section of the Washington Post suggests everything from a run at political office to new found parenthood. Maybe neither or both are true.

The reason I mention it is that word religion. I understand  for many people religion and God are interchangeable. That may or may not be true for Zuckerberg. For me they’re two different things — one a vehicle to understand God and the other, the God we’re trying to understand.

Put it that way and I’d say religion is less important than the real attempt to understand God. If we can do that honestly through a religion, that’s great.

But if not?

I guess what I’m saying is religion can be important if it helps us understand God. Too often it can just as easily get in the way of understanding God. When that happens, leaving the religion to understand God is just as important.

Society heading for collapse NASA-funded study shows. Here’s one way out.

God 4.0 - Shaft of Light

A Handy Tool

This week Dr Nafeez Ahmed wrote a blog for the Guardian showing how we may be a society heading for collapse. The NASA-funded study led by Safa Motesharri of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center used the cross-disciplinary “Human And Nature Dynamical” (HANDY) model, to arrive at some dire outlooks for human civilization.

By running a series of computer simulations that sees humans as predators and the natural world as prey, the HANDY model allows Safa and his team to predict where our current civilization is heading. And, you’ve guessed it, the outlook isn’t good.

Human Predators

Why not? Well that’s got a lot to do with how that human predator group breaks down. Because it isn’t just humans preying on the natural world that’s could see our society heading for collapse (though that is a problem). It’s also the way humans prey on each other. In fact in the HANDY model, humans are broken into two groups: commoners and elites. No prizes for who preys on whom there.

As Dr Ahmed says, “Although the study is largely theoretical, a number of other more empirically-focused studies – by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science for instance – have warned that the convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a ‘perfect storm’ within about fifteen years. But these ‘business as usual’ forecasts could be very conservative.”

Society Heading for Collapse? Not in all Simulations

You’ll be pleased to hear Safa and his team ran simulations that didn’t result in our society heading for collapse. But they required a change in the way we operate.

Here’s the trick: though collapse occurs in all simulations where the populations are unequal, in equitable and egalitarian societies things are different.

But getting to a sustainable society is tough because “While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse, and therefore advocate structural changes to society,” Safa et al write, “Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”

Put simply, elites will always argue to keep things the way they are.

Wading Through Bad Arguments

An article by Kathleen Miles in The Huffington Post takes down one of those arguments: trickle- down economics. In that argument as the elites, or what Fox News likes to call “job creators”, get richer they spend more money and create more jobs and so everyone is better off. Brilliant. I’ll take two.

Only thing is, as Miles writes, “The highest-earning 20 percent of Americans have been making more and more over the past 40 years […]. Over the same 40 years, the lowest-earning 60 percent of Americans have been making less and less.”

So much for trickle-down economics.

Avoiding A Collapse

Dr Ahmed draws his blog post to close with the lines “The NASA-funded HANDY model offers a highly credible wake-up call to governments, corporations and business – and consumers – to recognise that ‘business as usual’ cannot be sustained, and that policy and structural changes are required immediately.” That’s true, the question is why would governments, corporations and business change  anything?

A Ray of Hope

In my last blog, I said understanding no one has a monopoly on the truth of God can change things. It can mean we stop arguing about which religion is right and start working to bring the ideas of religion – fairness and justice to name two – into reality today.

To me, that’s why it’s so important that we find a new way to understand God. One that can act as a beacon guiding us as we make the tough decisions on the problems that face us today.

My guess is before the policy and structural changes Dr Ahmed hopes for come about, something else has to changes first: the way we see ourselves and each other.

Maybe that’s just a dream. But looking beyond ourselves to the idea of a God that unites rather than divides is a dream worth aiming for.


© Joe Britto and God 4.0, 2014. All rights reserved.



World Interfaith Harmony Week: Two Observations

God 4.0 - The Next Step in the God Concept - The Golden Rule (UN Photo/ Milton Grant)

When Blurred Lines Help

I was lucky enough to spend a day at an interfaith event that took place as part of World Interfaith Harmony Week. It’s focus was sharing ideas about the different religions present. Jainism, Baha’i, Judaism, Natural Pantheism, Paganism, Christianity, Islam the list went on.

Two things struck me that day.

One was how those religions, and others present, complimented each other. How when points of similarity are emphasised, points of difference blur.

One God Many Voices

Rabbi David Mivasair ended his talk that day with a story from Hebrew oral tradition. In the Midrash Rabbah, the story goes, God spoke at Sinai in seven voices and each voice went forth in seventy languages.

It’s a  simple and poetic picture for the diverse ways we hear, and so understand, God.

It reminds me of the story of the elephant behind the screen. The one where an elephant is hidden behind a curtain with slots large enough only for a hand to go through. Different people slide their hand though the hole and when asked to describe the thing behind the screen, they can’t agree. One says “It’s hard and pointed at the end,” another, “It’s very wide and thin, rough to the touch.” And another still, “It’s long and thin and hairy at the end.” A tusk, an ear and a tail. All parts of the same creature. Each on their own, difficult to see as being part of the same animal.

Like Rabbi David’s story, it sums up the need for things like  World Interfaith Harmony Week.

Moving The Conversation On

Interfaith events like the one I attended aren’t rare and they don’t just happen on World Interfaith Harmony Week. If you’re in the States, Harvard’s Pluralism Project holds frequent events with the mission of “helping Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity through research, outreach, and the active dissemination of resources”. If you’re in Canada. The Interfaith Observer plays a similar role and if you’re in the UK have a look at The World Congress of Faiths.

It’s refreshing to see while that “mind-numbingly circular” debate for or against God I mentioned in my last post drones on (and on, and…), there’s still a real desire for some to share ideas about God.

Letting Go

I said there were two things that struck me at that event. The other was this. At the end, when everyone was tidying up or stacking chairs, a man handed me a booklet. It told me Jesus was my saviour.

That simple, no doubt well intentioned, gesture speaks volumes about how difficult it is for some to let go of their one fixed idea about God.

Hold On, Lose Out

It’s holding on to one fixed idea about God that could be the reason younger generations are giving up on God. Although a survey released earlier this month by the Public Religion Research Institute points the reason squarely at a perceived anti-gay bias in organized religion, Jon Terbush  writing in The Week offers a broader view. The “outright hostility to science from some on the right,” Terbush writes, “— on global warming, evolution, and even something as seemingly benign as vaccines — only further impugns religion’s credibility with younger voters. It should be no surprise then that solid majorities of Millennials describe Christianity as “hypocritical” and “judgmental.”

Is it any surprise belief in God is losing ground? Put simply, if God really were as some right wing religious views depict it, then God too would be hypocritical and judgemental. Who wants any part of that?

Interfaith: The Beginning of A New View

World Interfaith Harmony Week isn’t about glossing over the problems of religion. It’s about respect for all religions.

And here’s something else it could be: the beginnings of a new way of looking at God. One that sees God not just present in all religions, but transcending religion as well.

Imagine that for a moment.

In a world that sees its religions as an attempt to understand God rather than having the definitive take on God everything changes. It means we can put religious differences aside, knowing one view is no more complete than another. It means we can start working together to solve some of the world’s problems. It might even mean we attempt to solve those problems with a sense of equality, justice and integrity.

And then who knows what kind of world we’d create for oursleves.


© Joe Britto and God 4.0, 2014. All rights reserved.

Picture: The Golden Rule (UN Photo/ Milton Grant)

Darwin & Holding onto Old Ideas. What They Have in Common.

First edition Origin of the Species

Darwin may have worried about the impact of his ideas. Turns out he didn’t need to.

Back in 1838, Charles Darwin was reading MalthusAn Essay on the Principle of Population. He was already fifteen months into figuring out how new varieties of life formed, but what struck him in Malthus’ book was the idea of checks and balances in nature that maintained populations. Writing in his notebook on September 28, 1838 Darwin said those external factors were “a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones”. It was the beginning of his ideas on natural selection.

Twenty years later on November 24, 1859 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published. Twenty years. According to the Natural History’s website, Darwin spent those years “agonising over every detail.”

Although Dr John van Wyhe in his essay “Mind The Gap: Did Darwin Avoid Publishing His Theory For Many Years?” shuts down the idea Darwin was nervous about the impact of his ideas on a creationist worldview, I think it’s disingenuous to think Darwin wasn’t concerned about how his work would be received. But if Darwin did worry about offering a theory of natural selection, it turns out he didn’t need to.

Darwin’s Idea: Yet To Catch On

A PEW Research Center analysis published in the fading moments of last year shows that 33% of American adults don’t believe in evolution. With an idea that would have been at home in the Victorian age, the poll found those 33% believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

Of those who do acknowledge evolution, “roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that ‘a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.’”

What are we to make of that?

The More Things Change…

Well, for one thing, that’s not the first time a good idea’s been rejected to keep a belief system going.

Throughout history people have a done a good job of holding onto whatever cherished idea they hold regardless of the evidence against it.

Back in the 17th century what people wanted to believe was that the Earth was the centre of the solar system. Actually of all creation. The stickler was explaining why Mars and the other known planets fall behind the Earth at some points as they pass through the sky. The phenomena’s called planetary retrograde and it’s one of the reasons Copernicus put the Sun at the centre of the solar system. You can watch an animation of the Mars retrograde as seen from Earth here.

But having rejected Copernicus and his ideas, astronomers at the time came up with ever more complex explanations for why this happened. And here’s what they did: they deemed that for no apparent reason planets moved in small circles or epicycles which in turn move along a larger circle in what we’d think of as a very complex orbit. If that sends your mind spinning, you can check out an animation of epicycles here. The advantage of this idea was that it explained why sometimes Mars went backwards.

As inventive as that explanation was it only worked for so long before more accurate data cast doubt on it. But once again that didn’t stop anyone from believing it. Instead, the astronomers of the day came up with epicycles within epicycles, or little circles within little circles. “Planets,” these astronomers were saying, “don’t just have one epicycle, but within the first epicycle, there’s another and another and another.”

All the additions necessary to keep the idea of circular orbits and an Earth centred solar system alive. Johannes Kepler, using Tycho Brahe’s data, offered a very simple reason for planetary retrograde. One that didn’t need epicycles. Adopting Copernicus’s sun-centred solar system, Kepler showed that planets don’t move in circles at all. They move in elliptical orbits. His three laws of planetary motion explained why planetary retrograde happened and predicted orbits for planets that hadn’t yet been discovered. No mental gymnastics, no philosophical mumbo-jumbo, just an observation based on what’s really happening.

Four Options for Handling New Ideas

One thing faulty logic has in common the world over is that it starts with a conclusion and finds, distorts or invents data to support it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s the thing: I think there’s four options we face when we come across an idea that challenges the way we think about the world. We can:

1. Ignore it and pretend the idea doesn’t exist.

2. Shoehorn it into our current ideas like our 17th century astronomer friends.

3. Denounce it.

4. Let the new information refine our idea if possible, or lead us to a better one.

God: Time for a New Idea

Historically, in the God debate, number four hasn’t been a popular option. It’s why, as Oliver Burkeman’s writes in The Guardian, the modern God debate has become “mind-numbingly circular” with each side arguing for the existence of a God that may or may not exist. The problem with those debates is that both side fail to move the conversation forward.

And since no-one has (or maybe even can) prove there is no God. And since the idea of a creator and personal God seems silly to many. Well, maybe it’s time for a new way to understand God. One  that isn’t contrary to evidence and reason. Maybe it’s time for the next stage in the God concept.


© Joe Britto and God 4.0, 2014. All rights reserved.


Rethinking God. Here’s why we should.

God 4.0 - Stone staircase with old worn step above a brand new one

A New Take On An Old Idea

I’m not the only person who’s considered rethinking God. As a matter of fact it’s an idea that’s gaining traction these days. Type rethinking God into google and like me, you might be amazed at the number of sites that come up. Why so many? Well, I’d say it’s becoming more and more apparent that the idea of a traditional God has become less and less relevant for lots of us.

“Nones” on the Rise

If that sounds unlikely to you, consider the PEW Research Center’s study. It found that the number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion keeps growing. Nones (so named because when asked to declare a religious affiliation in forms they select “none”), have grown from 15% to 20% between 2007 and 2012. That’s a big uptick. Of that group, 13 million report as atheists or agnostics. But what about the rest? As the guys at PEW put it:

“many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.”[1]

How do we understand those numbers? My take is it’s a clear message that it’s time to start rethinking God.

Rethinking God or Revising God?

That may sound like an academic question, but rethinking God vs revising God is, for me, at the heart of the discussion. Take a cursory glance at those websites I mentioned and you’ll find they’re revising an idea of God we already have. Of course there’re more radical ideas, but they ultimately fall into the same revise trap too. Let’s take a look at one.

Process Theology

Around the mid to late 1920s an idea began to emerge that seemed to signal a new way of understanding God. Today it’s attributed to Alfred North Whitehead,  an English mathematician turned philosopher and Charles Hartshorne, an American philosopher. Process theology sees lots of problems with a traditional view of God. In light of the universe science shows us, it acknowledges that God can’t be an absolute being that stands apart from creation.

For process theology, if God isn’t apart than God can also be affected by what goes on in the universe. If we follow the idea we get a God that changes as the universe changes.

Everything, including God, exists in relation to each other. Each affected by the other. That means God can’t know the future because it’s being created as we speak. It also means that though process theology can still envision a creator God, that God didn’t force its will on the universe, it “persuades” in much the same way the sun persuades the traveller to part with his coat in Æsop’s fable. If that feels to you like revising rather than rethinking God, it’s a view I’d agree with.

Where Revising God Gets Us

Process theology has been assimilated into Protestantism, Catholicism, Unitarianism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam through groups like Process Faith who “believe that theology grounded in the process thought of philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne makes the most sense of both historical faith and contemporary experience”. That means ideas like Whitehead’s get pulled back into our understanding of God 3.0 – the creator and personal God – with all the problems inherent in a God 3.0 worldview. It’s for that reason you see debates about sin and cases being made for God as creator in Marjorie Suchocki’s booklet, What is Process Theology?

What I’m trying to say is revising God can only take us so far in understanding God. Because it starts with much the same premise, it ends up with much the same God. It’s akin to rearranging deck chairs on a religious Titanic.

Some of process theology’s ideas are genuinely revolutionary. The move away from a God that forces its will on the universe for one. But it’s ability to fit neatly into existing ideas about God is what limits it. Maybe that’s because there will always be those who want to fit new ideas into an existing worldview. But maybe process theology’s a little guilty of that itself.

Think about that for a second. It’s because we’re stuck with the idea of a creator God, that process theology needs the concept of a persuasive God. But the theology could just as easily do without a persuasive or creator God. It’s idea of a God that is changed by the universe, that it exists in relation to it, is beautiful to me. Of course you can argue we can do without a God at all if it didn’t create or influence the universe. We can do that, but that means we’d be arguing that truth is only what we can see, touch and measure. And that’s about as arrogant and human-centric as an argument gets.

Where Rethinking God Could Get Us

Thousands of people throughout history have lived powerful lives based on their idea of God. Many have died for what they believed in. Many more have had brushes with something they feel is neither explained nor understood by the world science shows us.

Fundamentally rethinking God might allow us to get a clearer idea of what that something is. And of course process theology has a part to play in that.

I don’t know much about what that something is, but I’d say whatever it turns out to be, we might find it neither created us or looks after us. It won’t have a view on what we wear, eat or which day we pray on. It won’t have all the human qualities we’ve given it, but it won’t far removed from us.

Free from debates about sin and creator Gods, it might be that understanding whatever that something is helps us see the truth of our interconnectedness. Of our reliance not just on each other, but the universe from which we spring.

How might that change the way we see each other? See the world? What implications might that have on things like wars? Climate change? Global inequality?

The answers to those questions? Well, that’s what’s waiting for us if we’re brave enough and strong enough to let the idea of a traditional God go.


© Joe Britto and God 4.0, 2013. All rights reserved.