I’m sure that the reader has heard several religious people arguing over differing interpretations of the book to which all subscribe. Yet, this discussion represents only the partition of territory after the region has been occupied and conquered. More than is the case for most other areas of argument, such discussions have a literary and a utilitarian aspect; what I wish to move is that all actionable derivations from religious texts are equally valid from a literary perspective – the texts themselves are contradictory and lend themselves to elaboration and selectivity. Clearly these derivations will have an ethical rank, but this has nothing to do with scripture but rather with the experience of humans. As such, a given derivation can be an exemplar for malice, but, by definition, has parity with all others if it has literary support. The peril is that if one actually believes in a holy book, one can only ever advance beyond its morality by abandoning it – until that point, the believer will derive their morality arbitrarily and will only live the good life by accident.
To focus (for example) on whether Jesus considered women to be inferior or equal to men is to focus on the pixel and to ignore the image, which is that both contenders believe that they have access to the word of God. Amusingly, it is often the interpretations which are the most tenuous and metaphorical and in some ways weakest, which are the least harmful. It is amusing, also, how believers in a holy book frantically metaphor their way into something like compliance with nature or actual ethics while emphasizing the book’s supremacy – the onus being on them to stop trying to square the circle and to seize the true square.
People who make the claim that absolute truth can be found in an ancient tome dignify all others who do so. Even those, such as the Rowan Williams and the Rabi Jonathan Sachs (whose worldviews are clearly centred around human wellbeing and liberty, they only pretend that they are based on texts) make those who extrapolate rules straight from the pages into their lives seem a little less insane. As I mentioned before, so many religious people behave with decency and intelligence but still labour with their compass and straight edge, attempting to have their book comply with the social precepts of dignity and productivity which civilisation has developed for itself; the true and worthy contention is not between High and Low Church, between Catholic and Orthadox, or between Hindu and Muslim, rather it is between those who think that morality is developed and those who think that it is revealed.
So, I don’t care much for that style of debate, the true cause of humanitarianism is the human, and, while there is a moral gulf between radical and moderate religion, the gulf between believing innocuous impossible nonsense for no reason and believing deadly impossible nonsense for no reason is far smaller than that which lies between those two and not believing in anything without the proper evidence – people can and do traverse the former gulf. The first two categories include, of course, Lysenkoism, Homeopathy, Dianetics and all those other absurdities which people force themselves to believe. Really, such derivations from holy books are correct only when is impossible to be wrong (in as much as the way a poem makes you feel cannot be wrong) and when it is possible to be right are usually wrong – in the domain of human experience, where wellbeing can be measured and tested.
Reza Aslan, whose appearance on Fox News was viral recently, once expressed this dichotomy exactly. He spoke words to the effect of: ‘When religion goes bad, people blame religion; when science goes bad, people don’t blame science. Science should be blamed when it messes up.’ Definitionally, his argument is backwards. If falsehood and/or harm result when a scientist fabricates their results or permits sloppy technique, their actions are no longer science; when someone diverges from the scientific method they are no longer a scientist. Different readings of religious books, however, aren’t so categorical – the Jehovah’s Whitnesses’ reading of the Christian bible is just as supported, patchy and picky as that of any other denomination. The only meaningful distinction between denominations is external, id est how they affect their adherents. In instances in which science is wrong or harmful it will have been diverted from the principles of openness, repeatability and double-blind testing; when religions are violent, backward and prejudiced, faith will be present to the same extent as when they are mild.
All instances in which speakers claim that science caused suffering are ones in which the scientific principles were jettisoned. In the case of Nazi policies (for example), which people often cite as following the principles of Natural Selection, their prescriptions were contrary to Natural Selection, which favoured diversity (to say nothing of how the leaders are supposed to have extrapolated social policy from a theory which only explained things as they are). When religious fanatics act on their beliefs one has no recourse to scripture, the warrant for all their crimes can be found there, the only recourse is to reality and to the freedom, wellbeing and suffering of conscious creatures. This is the only domain in which truth can be apprehended and the only domain which matters.
Of course, the above makes no reference to the spiritual or to questions of art or music. Nevertheless, these questions can no more be true or false than they can be tested, and why would one want to do so? People will be moved by scripture, by spiritual practice or by art, and the reality of their experience is as true it is possible for things to be. Danger exists when the subjective reasoning which is used to determine these questions is used to make claims on legal or cosmic subjects, as religions always do. The only way in which one can address subjects such as whether a given work is moving is subjectively – when one speaks with this sort of reasoning on questions which do have factual and testable answers, the results are impoverishing.
The above probably represent two of the most significant con-jobs in the history of thought – the idea that something which manifests beyond the confines of the mind is true simply because it resonates, and the idea that responsibility for ethics can be transferred to scripture which supposedly transcends humanity. This is alongside the idea that faith can mean anything in a discussion of reality.
Lawrence Krauss tells a very amusing story about science and theology. To summarize, he asks an individual from a given scientific field to name the way in which their field has advanced human knowledge; for example a biologist would answer that their discipline helped to discover the enzymes which operate human biochemistry. The answers are of this sort for most sciences. Then Krauss reaches a theologian, who, when asked ‘How has your field advanced human knowledge.’, answers: ‘What do you mean by “knowledge”.’ I move that these three cons represent the bulk of the explanation for why a theologian would answer in this way, and why so many religions claim knowledge which they can’t have – with about as much to show for it in the real world as one would expect given these premises.
I feel that I too often encounter a positive reaction to a pronouncement by the brilliant Dawkins alongside an admonition of his character and his method of operation. This is rather a shame, in that those who admonish really should be allied with the man. My first theory for this reaction related the pitch and tone of his voice – I proposed that a few cigarettes a day could have provided him with the more general affection which is gathered by Christopher Hitchens’ purr. My latest theory is that Dawkins suffers from the British Martin Amis effect. That is, Dawkins is able, successful, right, rich, and is doing what a lot of us want to do, so we hate him for it.
Martin Amis’ astounding writing ability rewarded him with renown and wealth (for those who haven’t read him, I commend ‘Money’). He enjoyed this status for a while, then many in the British press began to suffer envy at the young man’s glittering career, some reacting with something like moral indignation at his being paid a £500,000 advance on The Information, and generally hating on him in most areas of his life. In some ways also, it could be said that Amis is someone who one would want to be – charm, voice, wit, smoking-style. Amis then moved to America, a country far more tolerant of extremes, such as size and wealth, where people actually accepted his success as a product of the economic system which most of his critics support. Everyone is invited to this British pastime, such as when the tiresome Shirley Williams denounced Salman Rushdie’s knighthood because he had offended Muslims (a reprimand which sparkled with envy at his success), and when the more interesting Terry Eagleton accused Amis of Islamophobia.
Islamophobia, which Eagleton as a literary critic and a man of words should boycott, returns us to Dawkins. So, when I hear someone say that they agree with what Dawkins says but that they don’t like him, I often conclude that they wish that they had published a string of lovely books and had influenced as many people and had earned as much money as he has. When they call him strident, they wish that they wish that they had written The God Delusion when he did.
The above remained in my drafts for several months, and I was convinced to resume it by the irrelevant reaction to Dawkins’ Islam tweet. I’ve chosen the first article in the Google results page for ‘Dawkins’, and a New Statesman piece quite representative of its new Masochistic-Left output – the article has one interesting sentence, the last, and at that an adaptation of Oscar Wilde.
The author states that there is actually nothing factual in the tweet. While I don’t hold the committee which gave a prize to Obama as being an exemplar for sound judgement, it is at least partially representative; Dawkins’ equation, while crude, is interesting. Of course, the scientific output of a nation is due to an almost innumerable number of factors – is it at least plausible to say that among them could be the nature of the beliefs of people, specifically whether they believe that one book is the true, final and unalterable word of a deity? Or even that there could be an antagonism between faith and science? Many Muslim countries (distinct, of course, from ‘Muslims’) are rapidly developing their scientific output, I look forward to seeing this trend continue – of course, it will necessitate that Muslims will have either to stop believing the Koran or to partition (as Francis Collins does) their religious and scientific mindsets. In addition, I think that the link between religion and distress (and distress and religion) is quite compelling, specifically such that as the most religious countries permit more education so will their religiousness decline, permitting even more education, and so fourth.
He continued to state that Dawkins’ tweet was racist, doing so with a gallery of vague analogies which weren’t quite a non-sequitur, but nor were they an argument. So far as I can tell, he said that the tweet was racist because Muslims are predominantly from a certain geographic area. I may have totally missed our author’s point, but this line of reasoning is absurd – identifying a group of people through one factor and for that grouping to be crudely concurrent with another factor cannot be regarded as identifying them according to the second factor. If people do so, that’s their problem, not Dawkins’.
The New Statesman’s author neared, but didn’t mention, the difficult situation which presents on questions of Islam – those who can’t differentiate between people of Middle-Eastern descent and an adherent of Islam are noisy and destructive currently; simultaneously, people who really believe in the book are attempting to run countries according to it, children are attending British schools which are essentially Islamic (I oppose any official religion in school) while Hamza Tzortzis, who’s leaflets on Science and the Koran were handed out at Liverpool University some months back, considers that the punishment for apostasy should be beheading with a sword. It would be quick, he observed, and I suppose that I would choose it before the gas chamber or the electric chair. The objective is to discuss these questions politically, scientifically and philosophically – to react like this author is to fail at this imperative. Finally, it is necessary that all criticisms of religion don’t have to address every religion, and true that all religions aren’t equally destructive.
I’m also rather perplexed by the question of whether Islam can be confused with an ethnic group. The major Muslim populations are in North Africa, the Middle-East, in India and in Indonesia; while I’m bored by ‘races’ and questions of ethnic ‘groups’, clearly this list describes a particularly diverse population. So, let us not tiptoe around those who can’t tell a Muslim from someone of Middle-Eastern origin. Rather, when one hears talk of these groups as an ‘ethnicity’ or of Islam as synonymous with Middle-Eastern, one should correct the speaker. Particularly, to adjust one’s critique of religion because of a common misapprehension is failure.
Richard Dawkins is often called patronising. Firstly, this title is frequently awarded frivolously (I gained it by citing a dictionary definition for ‘oppression’). Secondly, when someone uses the term patronising, it is often an inversion of the truth – when Lord Winston called Dawkins’ God Delusion patronising because of the word ‘delusion’, his argument was backwards; people reserve their most honest criticism for the people they respect, the watery acceptance and silence is designed for the creepy racists who lurk on public transport, longing to chat. Dawkins respected all those who he addressed in that book a great deal, most of all the believers who he didn’t fear or didn’t wish to condescend to – he wrote his mind, reminding us that there is no factual distinction between the belief that Elvis is still alive than that Christ is still alive. Dawkins truly broke ground here, these beliefs and the people who want to base policy on them or have them taught to our children have far less impunity than pre-God Gelusion times. Dawkins is responsible for a great deal of that progress and he made a lot of money and gained a lot of influence in doing so, and people’s envy has become mean.
You may be familiar with the posts which list ways in which men can be allies to women, such as this one, which lists 101 ways. Here is my list:–
1: Treat all individuals according to their abilities, actions and according to the content of their character.
2: Act so as to create a society which maximizes the extent to which individuals are treated according to their abilities, actions and according to the content of their character.
I’m reticent about contributing to a subject for which commentary, one could say, is plentiful; nevertheless, I’m made uncomfortable by the style of the debate so far. Currently, battle engages a proud, reigning pro-Thatcher faction against an anti-Thatcher one and whose output features an dangerously large proportion of resentment and poor form. It is counter-productive, also – if their faction is outclassed they could alienate the perplexed, leading to an unnecessary prolongation of the current neo-Thatcherism.
Taking a lead from Norman Mailer, you don’t, Dear Reader, have to read the whole of this post. If you’re bored by hard politics, skip to the indented paragraphs and a brief discussion of Thatcher’s personality; if you don’t think that you have time to read the whole post, please read the last four paragraphs.
Thatcher’s policies divide quite neatly into two groups: that which was malicious and that which was necessary. The first is self-explanatory. Within the second camp, are policies most of which were in some way historically inevitable but for which her government found a way to accomplish them either poorly or maliciously.
Poll tax was a policy which colourfully represented her government’s malice. Poll tax was charged per individual (or ‘poll’) meaning that a family of four would pay tax for every family member, with only a single adjustment for income. The previous system of ‘rates’ taxed a household according to the size of their property. One could fill a daily newspaper with decent arguments on tax, though I move that a solid governing principle is: tax should be levied according to the ability of a person to pay; poll tax made it so that those who were struggling had to pay proportionally more than those who were comfortable. Thatcher claimed to represent the free-market, which is laudable, though this was economic cruelty, not freedom.
Another expression of this cruelty was what is known as Section 28, a part of local council reform which prohibited the promotion of same-sex relationships and the idea that they were a family relationship. I’m sure that some are tempted to say that this rule is harmful only by a peculiarity of its enactment; conversely, it is an affront to personal and vocal freedom in itself. Same sex relationships and family relationships of a homosexual nature do not harm anyone, they are a lively component of a nation of liberty and, as such, there should be no prohibition against promoting them. Historically, this rule meant that support groups which had been helping young people to understand their sexuality stopped or reduced their activities so as to avoid breaking the rule – as a result, a generation of young people who experienced non-heterosexual feelings were subjected to the wisdom and equity of the playground and their teachers. Recall that it was only in 1967 and under one of my favourite Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson, that homosexuality was made legal.
Nevertheless, some Thatcher policies were inevitable, some of which were actually prudent. Section 28 was a policy of malice, while many of her free market policies were derived originally from ideas of individuality and freedom. The universe, I suppose, wouldn’t tolerate a situation in which the Thatcher government enacted good policies – rather, anything sensible had to be done with an element of brutishness or incompetence. To be clear, I’m open about economics – I’m content for people to vote themselves into the free market or into socialism; centrally however, maintaining the economic system of 1979 would not have produced the economic vibrancy which followed, or an economy like Sweden’s. Change was needed, though an obsessive and an enthusiast like Thatcher was one of the worst executives to do it.
First an example of cruelty. Contemporary British industry was archaic and wasteful and a sensible and productive future required change, and the unfortunate closure of certain mines and docks. Nevertheless, the speed, the extent and the nature of the industrial change was unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel, most notably because of the brutality with which dissent was suppressed.
For incompetence we have BT. The purpose of the free market is to allow competition: to give business people a free chance at making money, to give customers choice and to lower costs through customers’ purchasing power. With the colours of the free market, the Thatcher government privatised British Telecom but, rather than splitting it into entities which could compete, they produced a private monopoly which has led to hilariously poor service and high costs.
These are important steps. Undoubtedly this process means that these two great organisations of the English-speaking democracies, the British Empire and the United States, will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage.
For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings. I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.
This was Churchill, speaking on August the 20th, 1940 to the House of Commons.
I have always known that that task was vital. Since last week it has become even more vital than ever. We close our Conference in the aftermath of that sinister utopia unveiled at Blackpool. Let Labour’s Orwellian nightmare of the left be the spur for us to dedicate with a new urgency our every ounce of energy and moral strength to rebuild the fortunes of this free nation.
If we were to fail, that freedom could be imperilled. So let us resist the blandishments of the faint hearts; let us ignore the howls and threats of the extremists; let us stand together and do our duty, and we shall not fail.
This is Thatcher, Speaking to the Tory conference in Brighton on October the 10th, 1980. People often praise Thatcher’s tenacity and ability, especially in becoming the first female Prime Minister. But Thatcher was, in that respect, a monoculture – without nuance, with nothing of the imagination and imagery which Churchill offered. Diverting attention from her ludicrous abuse of Orwell, Thatcher’s speech is monochromatic and has a disregard for proportionality and measure; using language of an apparently stronger nature than Churchill did when he faced one of the most terrifying dictatorships of history. She presents a Tory-centric universe, in which they can all be messiahs; Churchill, with inestimably more imagination, knew that the river of history would flow without him and without the Tory party; there are no saviours, only actors.
My fingers hovered over the keyboard for a moment, about to write ‘Despite’. However, there is nothing ‘despite’ about the relationship between the above and my discussion of those who celebrate the death of Thatcher.
Foremost, the death of an individual is cause for sobriety, especially with reference to those who have lost someone who was important to them. There are some cases in which death may mean the end of suffering, in which case it can be embraced; in addition, it might be relevant to celebrate the death of a brutal dictator. Nevertheless, it is not death from which people attain freedom and safety, it is the end of tyranny. The people of the UK are no freer, healthier or greater as a result of Thatcher’s death, all it means is that she will no longer be alive for people who loved her, which is cause to be sombre. I have encountered people who are celebrating her death for reasons which include her support of the war in Iraq and because she continued to voice her convictions – being this offended by the views of an elderly woman is pitiful, not indicative of the personal and moral strength which is necessary to maintain a great nation.
This quality reaction is peculiarly poor form on a gross scale, which is unforgivable in itself. Moreover, it marks a dangerous tendency in some of those who are anti-Thatcher and on the left – of being coarse and loud, of holding grudges and generally incubating resentment. This is tiresome but, more urgently, it will bore people with limited time and will offend people of taste, as such, this death-love is love for electoral death.
The left and the anti-Thatcher camp can do better and classier – people deserve better from the left and the anti-Thatcher camp. Crudeness or resentment will not enable those who oppose Thatcher’s policies to take power and install useful and fair policy; decency, humour and imagination will. More urgently, Thatcher’s death means the reanimation of discussion over her policies, and if the left act like Yahoos, the right will win the day.
Yesterday a friend of mine and I walked to Sefton Park. The park emotes the English one-sided smile of civil and municipal generosity — it also means that, within a short walk from our halls of residence, students from this part of town can access a botanical garden, the Palm House. It is a tall structure, white cast-iron and glass, constructed by patronage with the approaching terminus of the 19th century; to be shattered by a German bomb during the second world war and restored twice since then. One can encircle the Palm House, passing the benches presented as offerings of thanks or as memorials to deceased relatives and the statues of great men: Captain Cook, Linnaeus, Darwin and others.
The garden features many beautiful and fascinating specimens from around the globe. I’m a remarkably poor botanist and really should have taken notes on the plants which interested me. Suffice it to say that I was astounded by the variety of the plants, while being able to note now these divergent forms had been produced by natural selection: the plants whose flowers are intelligible as coloured versions of leaves — their petals sharing a closer relationship with their predecessors than, for example, a tulip. They own a magnificent tree which, rather than growing upward with a main trunk with new bows branching off (like an oak), had thick fleshy stems which grew in all directions and, as it grew upwards, the lower stems would fall off, leaving a hard desiccated trunk as a record. This variance, which I find outstanding, means nil to natural selection — these two practices are just ways of seeking the sun. One tree presented, on a bowed branch, surrounded by leaves and protective bodies, a colourful, plump and large seed-pod, like a child timidly presenting a newly discovered treasure or an artist drawing back the curtain to show an unfinished creation.
In some ways these plants are unfeeling, in other ways they can be considered heroes. They don’t feel compassion or consider any questions of altruism or wellbeing, at the same time they will fight to produce and nurture their offspring forever, given that they live and there is air, sunlight and nutrients. In a way they are like the first machines which humans created: utterly earnest and selfless, but now humanity wants to create AI, machines which are more like us.
I met another friend later that day. She had been upset by specific stresses, and required companionship. I can say quite seriously that most men, under those stresses, would not have been in the state she was; the corollary is true for her powers of empathy, allowing her to mediate certain social states which most men can’t. Depending on one’s expectations I can be not much of a man — nevertheless I was the necessary male-concrete which she required.
Try to quantify how much time is spent considering issues which are relevant to or which arise due to gender? In how many areas of one’s life is gender a fundamental consideration?
Later I went into town to have some food with friends, they took the bus home afterwards and were surprised that I would be walking from Liverpool town centre to Mossley Hill; I reminded them that I had an overcoat and Radio Four. As I climbed Bold Street I did up the buttons and donned the headphones, arriving part way through a programme on gender, a Brief Natural History of Sex. It explained how a female Komodo Dragon, if alone without males, can produce a clutch of eggs of all males. I learned how crocodile eggs are gendered by the temperature at which they are incubated. I learned that for many types of fish their anatomy means that gender changes are very simple, for some species the largest individual is male and when he dies the largest female will start acting as a male almost immediately and will, after a few days, start producing sperm.
The most interesting feature of the programme was their investigations into the origins of gender. They theorise that the first genders were developed during the inebriated evening which followed the dawn of eukariotic life — this dawn involved certain cells incorporating other living cells, the incorporated parties are now organelles like mitochondria — scientists have found that if two cells which both contain mitochondria are combined the resulting cell will die, meaning that for sexual reproduction to work only one gamete can contain mitochondria; the female.
So I courted a curious feeling as I walked; considering how much attention I and others pay to gender: Female-only shortlists, the Drones, Vogue, GQ, the Virgin Mary, Jesus; how does it feel, in that all this is just a function of Natural Selection, of reproduction? The Sixties, the battle of the sexes, religion, the contortions which we experience over members of the other or our own gender — do you feel manipulated by evolution, or freed?
Coda: The Media
I heard on the news, on the same day, that there are campaigns in operation which hope to even the ratio of men to women as they appear on the radio and on television. To me this goal is nearly as fatuous as the idea that women should be made to wear a burqa. I move that the principle that women or men can be treated en bloc is a fallacy, when considering media and employment, the functioning unit is the individual and our goal should be to create a system where the individual is treated fairly when applying for a given job. The blogger and YouTube presence Aurini, in his video ‘How to Defeat the Left’, identified a popular narrative: a certain group has a grievance (usually to do with equality) and demands action, usually through law or policy. In many cases the group itself is irrelevant and the form of equality is a construct, leading to inverted priorities. The way in which we can create a better media in Britain will be by giving all individuals access to the best education and training, by inspiring confidence in their own talents, and by creating a truly fair selection process. The actual percentage of women or men who appear on screen or on the radio is irrelevant, why should we care? One’s target should be, simply, to be the best one can.