Wednesday, July 27, 2005

What would be in your room 101?

The more paranoid would think that someone is out to get me. Every summer there is a night on which I will be sitting in my study writing and suddenly hear something large and heavy wallop the lampshade behind me. This year when it happened I immediately knew what it was - a hornet, about four centimetres in length, eight (or thereabouts) if you count the sting. Ever since I was a little kid I was... let’s say ‘very uneasy’ about large flying things with stings in the same small room as me. Kind of reminds me of the special torture room in 1984 – my room would have hornets in it. Well, thanks to Mr. Mortein, we have the means to deal with the flying horror.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

There's not much that can beat this, is there?

I don’t know how to put this in any particularly interesting way so I won’t try. Quite simply, yesterday I watched my daughter take her first steps. She rolled like a sailor on a storm-tossed deck and ended up plopping down on her bottom but before she did she walked something like 2 metres. One can look for whatever meaning one wants in that but, really, such a search is pointless. The meaning is right there. The story behind the event is just that – the story behind the event – and nothing more substantial. I would like to say more but would inevitably fall into cliché as is almost inevitable when describing a intensely personal experience that is, in truth, universal.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Even been stalked by a Catholic?

I just love the online Catholic Encyclopedia. No, seriously. It’s great to read it and find some of the more Byzantine if not downright bizarre bits of Christian ideology. For example, here’s a bit of what the encyclopedia has to say on the topic of apostates like me:

Today the temporal penalties formerly inflicted on apostates and heretics cannot be enforced, and have fallen into abeyance. The spiritual penalties are the same as those which apply to heretics. In order, however, to incur these penalties, it is necessary, in accordance with the general principles of canon law, that the apostasy should be shown in some way. Apostates, with all who receive, protect, or befriend them, incur excommunication, reserved speciali modo to the Sovereign Pontiff (Constitution Apostolicæ Sedis, n=B0. 1). They incur, moreover, the note of "infamy", at least when their apostasy is notorious, and are "irregular"; an infamy and an irregularity which extend to the son and the grandson of an apostate father, and to the son of an apostate mother, should the parents die without being reconciled to the Church.

There’s just so much there and it is all meat. Firstly, the observation that the temporal penalties have fallen into disuse because they are unenforceable. In other words, they don’t burn people any more because they’re not allowed to. Charming, just plain bloody charming. Secondly, the bit that says that not just the apostate is excommunicated but everyone they associate with. So, I guess if I did get excommunicated, as I clearly ought to be, then my whole family, including my pious, loving, gentle, almost saintly mother, would be excommunicated along with me with the power to remove the anathema being reserved to the Pope. I have to say that I am quite sure that would kill her. Thankfully it seems that the spiritual penalties have also turned out to be unenforceable. Finally, I have no idea what they mean by ‘irregular’ but it definitely sounds Old Testament to me. The funny thing is that they land this great moral weight upon my grandson but don’t mention my grand-daughter. For that matter, I have no idea if my daughter is supposed to be regular or not. I guess she isn’t as we haven’t been having any problems with her in that respect – the encyclopedia (thankfully!) goes on to state that most writers agree that irregularity is only genetically transferable in the case of those who’ve joined a sect or been personally condemned by ‘ecclesiastical authority’. The whole tone of the document is so deadly seriously as to be down right laughable. On the other hand, it bothers me that generations of people have spent their lives building up and caring about this hollow edifice.

“But, aren’t you doing the same thing?” someone might observe, “After all, you’re writing about it at length.” And they will have something of a point. So, let me explain.

The punishment for apostasy is excommunication. This sounds to me like someone who’s just been dropped screaming at their departing ex – “And don’t you even think about coming back!” Which is an understandable, though absurd, reaction in the case of a petulant sixteen year old boy but not in the case of a two thousand year old church led by old men. Well, the problem is that my ‘ex’ happens to like stalking. Wherever I go, the ex is there. Hanging around on street corners as I drive by. Suddenly appearing on my TV. Accosting me on the train. Coming around every time there’s a holiday. I ought to get a restraining order against Christianity!

But I can’t. So, I do what anyone would do in my situation – I try to make do as best I can in the circumstances. In my case this means, among other things, letting others know what a creep my ex is.

Why do intelligent people believe in this stuff?

I have found the capacity for intelligent people to disagree upon what seem to me obvious things, including the non-existence of God, quite astounding. I think it points toward something essential about humans. Let me explain.

I have a very good friend whom I respect both as a good, honest and dependable human being and as a highly competent academic. This friend, like many others, is a Christian. I was speaking with him the other day and asked him what he thought to the death of John Paul II. His reply was that, although he didn’t agree with the ways in which some chose to express their emotions, he did feel that the last Pope was a very great man, perhaps the greatest figure of the twentieth century. The way he said this, it was clear that my friend was not merely expressing his evaluation of the Pope’s significance but, also, expressing his quite boundless admiration for him.

Both sentiments seem to me to be quite inappropriate given a rational evaluation of the life of John Paul II. That he was a very significant figure during the 20th century is, of course, clear but that is far from saying that he was the most significant. The list of alternatives provided by even a cursory familiarity with history – Lenin, Roosevelt, Einstein, Picasso, Elvis – is too long to make any such quick and easy judgement justifiable. Also, anyone who is at all interested in the role played by the Roman Catholic Church could not help but be aware of the various scandals that have taken place during the Pope’s reign and his failure to respond to them. His opposition to various sexual practices of the secular members of the church and to liberation theology has been far more pronounced and vehement than his opposition to child-molestation among clergy and the dictatorships that liberation theology was a response to. I am sure that Cardinal Law would not have been given a post in the Vatican is he had once worn a condom instead of having protected uncounted criminal child-molesting priests. Indeed, I can imagine a priest who had safe sex with an altar boy receiving the harsher punishment for the use of a prophylactic. Yet, despite all this, the friend of mine has what seem like unalloyed respect and devout admiration for the recently deceased Pope. And he is by no means the only one.

Pascal, expressing the enlightenment ideal, wrote that human beings are thinking reeds – fragile in body but magnificent in mind. This transcendent ideal of rationality has played a vital role in the development of atheism and secular humanism as people came to believe that they may understand the world without the need to rely upon God’s aid. However, looking at cases such as I have mentioned and many other examples, it seems to me that the ideal is illusory and mistaken (another Pascal, Pascal Boyer is saying much the same thing). This does not mean that I would counsel the acceptance of the various nihilist anti-intellectual fashions that have been sweeping through the intellectual classes over the last hundred years or a return to blind obedience to the word of God (as spoken by the priest). No, human beings are quite rational but our rationality is not the transcendent one that enlightenment philosophers imagined but, rather, a limited, fragile, reed-like affair far more appropriate to our bodies. Such a view seems, if anything, far more fitting to the anti-spiritualist position that an atheist holds. Which brings me back to intelligent people disagreeing. It becomes much easier to understand why they do once we realise just how fragile and limited our reason is, how closely tied to a number of other human traits and to what degree it is simply aimed at helping us manage to live in what is a dangerous world. Among other things this means that the matters which allow discussion are not those where error is immediately deadly – one can only discuss the reality of the cars on the highway so long as one is standing on the grass.

The healing power of prayer?

Nope. There’s none. The latest Lancet study has been completed and praying for someone has no effect upon the progress of their disease. I guess that brings us back to trying to understand diseases and using that knowledge to come up with cures.

As Bob Harris observes, this really ought not to be something that is a surprise to many people. If prayer worked then those praying to the right deity would be reaping the benefits and this would be a dead give away which of the thousands of faiths in the world is the true one. Mind you, from what I gather, the study was only done for a number of Christian denominations. Which means that all of the non-Christian theists could be thinking that their odds are getting better. Can’t say I think so.

One has to wonder about the rationale for such studies. The one for this study was clear-cut – an earlier study had seemed to show some effects so there was a clear need for debunking. However, who is going to be convinced by such studies? Religious faith has shown time and time again a thorough resilience to rational thought with people either ignoring the facts or reinterpreting them time and time again to protect their religious convictions. One might as well try to rationally convince a paranoid person that they are not being plotted against – they will only decide that you must be in on it. The whole thing calls not so much for studies as for therapy. However, while it remains socially condoned or even socially prescribed, there’s no hope for a cure. Perhaps we could get people to pray for an end to religion?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The meaning of victory?

As I sit at the computer I regularly check up on the latest news. Several times a day I see reports that state that n people had been killed and m people been injured by a suicide bomber in Iraq. Often I just read the first number and ignore the second. They are still alive, after all, right? Then, again, I do sometimes wonder what ‘injured’ means here. Some with a minor leg wound will walk away from the site of the blast. Some will somehow manage to live on even though half their faces were left hanging on by a strip of flesh, unable to ever again live the kind of life they had before. Then I wonder about something which is not normally mentioned. You know those movies in which the bad men kidnap a little girl and do terrible things to her but where in the end she is rescued by the hero. A victory, the movies present the rescue as. Joseph Conrad already knew the acrid smell of that word. What victory is it that a girl went through hell and in any realist world will now be scarred for life by the memories? Victory? – a meaningless word, surely – only an ‘undefeat’. And it is the same in the case of Iraq. A few days ago a man drove his car into a stopped US vehicle and pressed the button on the explosives. The US soldiers had parked to give out candy to children so a large number of children were killed and wounded in the attack. And those that weren’t killed or wounded? They will also be scarred for life – however long that will be in the war zone that is Iraq.

It all reminds me of a particularly powerful passage that Dostoyevsky wrote about a hundred years ago. In Brothers Karamazov one of the characters tries to explain the need for evil in God’s world. The other man says that there is no amount of good that can redeem the cry of pain of a single child. Indeed, there is nothing that can redeem those children that died, that were injured, that saw and will remember. This does not mean automatically that the attack on Iraq was wrong – it was, but that is a more complex matter as our decisions are naturally bound to be morally compromised – but it does mean that our leaders ought to be people who read and understand Dostoyevsky and Conrad, who appreciate that our decisions are naturally bound to be morally compromised and yet who feel the full moral force of the implications of their actions. None of those traits have any chance of being instantiated in the person of George W. Bush – the reborn Christian.

Would you mind if I talked to you about a good book?

Part of the reason why I am thinking about the question of why religious beliefs are so tenacious is that I am reading a good book. Pascal Boyer – Religion Explained. He applies evolutionary and cognitive psychology to that very question. Still haven’t finished it so I’m not ready to give a final evaluation but he argues that religion is tied closely to the belief in agents that are alike normal agents in most respects but that have full awareness of strategic facts like whether you’ve been a good boy. Basically, his argument is that while there is no specific God module in our heads, we are structured mentally in such a way that religious beliefs come about very naturally. This is because, according to him, they utilise the very same inference modules in our minds that we use to function in society. My worry at this point of the book is that he relies heavily on Steven Pinker’s work which I am somewhat sceptical about, myself. Still, I think many of his points could be made in a way that did not rely on that particular view of the human mind. Having said that, the title of the book has got to be seriously off-putting. It is simply too ridiculously grand to be taken seriously. I guess someone – most likely not the author – must have thought that it makes for a more readily marketable title than Religion Possibly Explained or Religion Considered.

It is very good to see this kind of work being done. That we need to understand where religion comes from is something that I think most could agree with, the exception being fundamentalists of any stripe. The Boyer book is not the definitive answer the title purports it to be but it is a valuable addition based upon what I have seen – plenty of other work being done in psychology and cognitive science is helping to cast light on the issues as well.

What I found interesting is that Boyer seems to assume that superstition and religion are pretty much one and the same, giving examples from both and only noting that religious beliefs are those superstitious beliefs that people happen to put great value upon. I’ll have to think about that.

What's changed?

Remember how when the Pope died people were saying that the world had changed and that everyone would now try to be better? You do? Good, because it seems like everyone who was saying it has forgotten. Politics is still a nasty business, people are still killing each other for pretty much any excuse. In fact, I know of no indicators that have significantly changed since the last Pope’s death other than the global BS index which is still following the exponential growth curve it has followed for decades.

So. What’s changed? The sheer amount of hypocrisy one has to deal with every day is up.

Is there an exorcist in the house?

I don’t know why but I have been recently inundated by news items about exorcists. I had been under the impression that these days exorcisms were only performed in places where everyone’s related to each other and drives a van, either that or in Hollywood. But no. It seems that the office of the exorcist is actually alive and well in the Catholic Church, with at least one on staff in Rome. Quite amazing, really. But it does show something I think. Which is that we are definitely not living in times that are as enlightened as some of us would like to think they are. I know that this is a trite thing to say these days. But, even so, even given everything and all of the ‘discounting’ we have been forced to by the Shoot-out at the Fanatic Corral that the world has been turned into, it is still true that the world is less enlightened. The Catholic Church – with its exorcists and medieval ontology, its self-mutilation and intellectual sophistry, its wish granting relics and battalions of saints – is, to a great degree, a part of it.

One of the most frightening things was that the news item about the exorcists seemed to suggest that these practises are perfectly legitimate and rational – a “to be applied once all measures known to psychology fail” kind of thing. A case of journalists failing dismally to maintain a single critical bone in their body and putting alien abductions on a par with senate proceedings – O.K., so senate proceedings might be a bad example of something that is real.

Indeed, there is a ghost to be exorcised. It is the spectre of religious belief that hangs to us even as we walk on the moon, even as we manage to send our thoughts around the world at the speed of light (or at least whatever the network servers will allow). An atavism that no ceremony seems capable of completely curing us of. Which, in its turn, reminds me of the interesting case of the Czech Republic – a place that from all that I have been told is largely irreligious. It is particularly interesting in so far as it shares much of its history with Slovakia and yet is so unlike that country in the strength of religious feelings in it. I wonder why that is. What caused the Czechs to largely give up on religion while their neighbours, the Slovaks, still indulge in it? Of course, much of the modern world has largely become secularised – with the US being the elephant-sized exception to the rule. Which leads to another question – why do religious faith and religious fanaticism prosper in The States while withering away in Europe? I don’t have the answers.

The biggest question, I guess, is to what degree religiosity is an inherent human trait? What is it about us and about religion that makes the match so resilient? And, can it be something that proper upbringing will rid us of?