Saturday, October 29, 2005

What comes before a fall?

The Romans had the tradition that a general who had won a great victory would be accorded a triumph, the right to a grand parade through Rome. He would ride a chariot in among the panoply of soldiers and captured treasures. In the chariot, behind him, rode a slave who would whisper into his ear, “Remember you are just a man.” The word ‘hubris’ is even older, coming from Ancient Greek – the word meaning that the person challenges the will of the Greek gods – with Greek tragedies often being stories of hubris. For some reason I find myself reminded of these things when I read the news coming out of the US these days. Perhaps the Americans will arrange for an Iraqi to sit behind the next President-elect during their Inauguration. Either that or start watching the Theban Plays again.

What are we to do?

Once upon a time, a traveller came to a well-to-do village. He was walking from door to door asking for food when he saw a small girl playing on the road by herself. Running, he picked her up and carried her off the road just as several horses came galloping around the corner. “If it weren’t for you, my daughter would be dead now,” a woman told him and gave him a large bowl of soup, “How did you know that she was in danger?” “I know what is best for people,” he said quietly.

Soon, the story began to spread around the village and people came to see the traveller. “Should I marry the man I am engaged to?” one woman asked him and he told her not to as the man would become a drunk and ruin them both. “What should I sow this spring?” a man asked him and he replied to sow wheat as it would be a long and sunny summer. And his predictions proved true, those who failed to follow his advice suffering for it. Soon enough all the people in the village would lay aside their tools and go to the traveller with every decision. Seeing his wisdom, the villagers decided to make him their leader and went to him to ask what the village should do.

“What are you to do?” he repeated their question, his voice suddenly full of sorrow. “You must take up sticks and rocks and chase me out of this village, never letting me come back.” They were struck silent by his words and stood around aimlessly while he sat on the chair they had set out on the village green for him. Finally, seeing that they did not understand, he stood up and slowly, without looking back walked out of the village, never to be seen there again. And the villagers stood around on the green asking themselves, “What are we to do now?”

Friday, October 28, 2005

It maybe alright between consenting adults but what about the children?

A month ago I posted an entry in which I asked what should be done about people bringing up children in a religious manner. It was supposed to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek as I modelled what I wrote on the usual diatribes against homosexuality. Such use of analogy is a tried and tested method of getting people to see things from a different point of view. Still, I ought to consider the issue of children being brought up religious more seriously and carefully as it is something which is of immediate significance to me.

My problem is that I find myself agreeing with two incompatible arguments. The first of these is that people have the right to bring up their children as they wish and the state has no right to intervene or, to look at it from the other side, a state that intervenes in how parents bring up their children sounds awfully close to a paternalist (if you pardon the pun) dictatorship. The other argument is that by being brought up in some religion the children are quite likely being hurt in a deep and profound way – this being unacceptable in any truly modern society. So, I find myself squeezed between two incompatible imperatives. As I have grown more and more aware, in life rarely do we have a good solution.

Of course, neither of the two considerations I outlined above is absolute – we sometimes do think the state is right to intervene and we do think that we should accept some level of harm being done to children by their parents. Nothing is absolute as following either of these roads to the end would bring us... well, to the end. If the state never intervened then parents who commit incest, or who prostitute their children, or whatever else the human mind is capable of inventing, would be free to continue so long as the noise didn’t bother the neighbours. If the state always intervened then parents would be in trouble the moment they spoke too harshly to their child at the end of a long and tiring day. A line or, rather, many lines have to be drawn – the question of how to treat the fact of children being brought up religious is not capable of being solved straight out by a simple statement of some moral rule.

The first question has to be just how damaging to the children is such upbringing? And immediately we run into a serious difficulty – no proper study has, to my knowledge been ever attempted to judge this. Of course, there is the Paul Gregory study I have mentioned a number of times recently but that is about something different – the effect of religiosity upon the whole society. What I’d like to know is the effect on a person of being brought up religious. A number of times I have heard of studies of happiness which showed that strong religious beliefs lead to increased happiness – the ‘problem’ being that strongly held atheist beliefs are just as effective in that respect. But ‘happiness’, whatever it adds up to exactly, is hardly the ‘be all and end all’ of life. Otherwise, some sort of narcotic set-up would probably have to be considered most desirable. No, the harm I speak of isn’t necessary linked to happiness but to something more profound. If one considers it valuable to be able to face existence with an open, searching, friendly mind then, in many case, a religious upbringing must be seen as harmful. Of course, it would be foolish to deem all people who were brought up in some religion harmed by the experience. Some thrived and matured fully in that environment, others we faced with a religious environment whose harmfulness was minimal and others simply rebelled and, in fact, managed to gain strength from the struggle to free themselves of religion.

In an important sense it isn’t a religious upbringing per se that is the problem. I think that a person who is growing up ought to be presented with options and the opportunity to develop intellectually and emotionally in ways that may surprise or, even, at times trouble their elders. The problem with many religious communities is the certainty that they have God by the lapels so that any veering from their set of beliefs and practices is a move away from what is true and what is good. In that context variability can only be seen as a disability or, even, a sin. From that a straight-jacketed approach to upbringing follows. However, certainty is not just something that infects the religious – it can also affect atheists, the difference being that a religion can very easily provide philosophical grounds for such certitude while science, the next best thing for atheists, is open-ended and self-questioning. Someone with an unending faith in science is being unscientific. Someone with an unending faith in God is... well, the Pope.

Having said that I think the second part of when and how the state might intervene becomes somewhat easier to consider. First of all, I do think the state is right to intervene in cases that would traditionally be seen as purely within the purvey of the parents. Thus, in Sweden, spanking children is illegal. And so it should be. Being a parent I can attest to the fact that spanking a child is the result of a failure of the parent to find a better way to direct their child’s energy (and their own anger). No, I have never hit my tiny one-year-old daughter. Indeed, the very thought of it makes me feel sick to the pit of my stomach. However, I have at times felt angry or frustrated and can see how easy it must be for some parents to react with violence at that point. Secondly, I think it would be absolutely wrong to make it illegal for parents to bring up children within a religious context. What I think the state has the right to and, ultimately, ought to ensure is that children are brought up in a manner which makes them responsible for their own choices about how they will live their lives as well as giving them the tools they will need to make those choices. An orthodox religious upbringing fails to do either, by making the children think that they merely have to follow set strictures instead of intelligently responding to the immense complexity of real life. So, I guess, a big answer to my question is pluralism.

Of course, all that I wrote isn’t so important to me in the context of what a state ought to do – I’ll worry about that more if someone should suddenly make me king. However, the same issues are very significant for me as I am an atheist bringing up a daughter together with a (very laid back) Catholic. In a way such an upbringing can offer the best situation – assuming the parents are capable of coordinating their disparate world-views within the confines of the house. I might be worried that my reasoning was in effect reverse-engineered to fit my current situation, if I just weren’t as aware as I am of how much this set-up requires from the parents.

Monday, October 17, 2005

How many angels can dance in a just society?

Keep coming across references to the Gregory Paul article on the correlation between religion and social dysfunction in all of the usual leftie, anti-religious places. Good thing! The latest person to discuss it is George Monbiot in The Guardian. He raises a couple of important questions but then fails to properly deal with them. The first is “Is it fair to blame all this on religion?” As Monbiot points out, social spending is lower in the countries which are worse off. Which means that three things are statistically connected to some degree: religiosity, low social spending and social dysfunction. The link isn’t exact as the example of UK shows with its low social spending, low religiosity and medium level of social dysfunction. Perhaps being religious leads to dysfunctional societies or, perhaps, dysfunctional societies lead to religious belief. Maybe, low social spending causes religious feeling or, maybe, religious feeling brings about low social spending. The question of what the causal connection is between these three is got to be complicated, with the general theme probably being ‘positive feed-back’. Any which way it turns out, it doesn’t look good. Which actually makes me wonder about a feasible (but unconvincing) conspiracy theory – Are religious figures conspiring to keep societies dysfunctional, with large scale suffering, poverty and injustice, in order to maintain the atmosphere for religion? Did the Catholic Church oppose Liberation Theology to keep the South Americans poor, downtrodden and, therefore, Christian?

The second question Monbiot raises is also very interesting – the significance of people whose religiosity leads them to a heroic defence of the rights of others. Of course, individual cases are just that – they are not proof of a general conclusion. Still, the idea that religious beliefs such as the belief in the existence in heaven make people more willing to act altruistically shouldn’t be discounted. Indeed, it needn’t be discounted. What needs to be compared, after all, is not the behaviour of individual people but the overall functioning of the society. Therefore, just as individual charity in the US is drastically less effective at lowering poverty than state programmes in Norway, so individual piety and heroism is less effective in creating a functional society than an generally pragmatic attitude, it seems. Of course, one may be saddened to see a lack of such individual bravery but then, in a properly run democratic state, all that is required is the normal, everyday willingness to participate in the broadly-construed political process. Even that sometimes calls for bravery and definitely does require persistence and a number of other virtue.

Friday, October 07, 2005

What will the Pope say about this, I wonder?

I am a firm believer in giving credit where credit is due and, in this particular instance, credit is due to the Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland. Times Online has the following news:

THE hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has published a teaching document instructing the faithful that some parts of the Bible are not actually true.

The Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland are warning their five million worshippers, as well as any others drawn to the study of scripture, that they should not expect “total accuracy” from the Bible.

“We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision,” they say in The Gift of Scripture.

Of course, the Roman Catholic Church has been moving away from Bible literalism for quite a while – very few Catholics would have a problem with what Galileo and Copernicus claimed, even if it disagrees with the Bible. But, it is still very good to hear this said by Church authorities. The bishops go on to say the following about fundamentalism:

Such an approach is dangerous, for example, when people of one nation or group see in the Bible a mandate for their own superiority, and even consider themselves permitted by the Bible to use violence against others.

Well, I could not help but think of the following in this context:

I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan. And I did, and then God would tell me, George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq... And I did.

Yes, that’s the head Chimp, himself, speaking to Palestinian representatives (from BBC World). Wonder if the British bishops were thinking of Dubya and his poodle when they wrote their document.

Of course, the bishops do not think that everything in the Bible is just a myth. For example, they do take the virgin birth to be a real event. They have to draw some line, otherwise they end up not being Catholics but being naturalists. But, where is this line to be drawn? I can not help that reasonable Catholics such as the British bishops are caught in a bind. On the one hand they are modern enough to realise that much in the Bible is, I might say, apocryphal but on the other hand, they are still religious enough to think that much isn’t. Those two positions aren’t compatible in the long term as a rational, historically-informed attitude to the contents of the Bible dissolves whatever dogmas it comes into contact with. The literalist have, in a sense, a much easier time – they simply have to completely forego rational thought in one area of their lives.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

What is the price of bliss?

Checked up on news links to the Gregory Paul article on the correlation between social dysfunction and religiosity I mentioned recently. Several in Europe but, thus far, only a single one from the US media. The opinion piece in the LA Times is favourable and says, among other things:

My prediction is that right-wing evangelicals will do their best to discredit Paul's substantive findings. But when they fail, they'll just shrug: So what if highly religious societies have more murders and disease than less religious societies? Remember the trials of Job? God likes to test the faithful.

However, I think the author, Rosa Brooks, is probably wrong in her expectation. The general lack of interest among the US media suggests to me another strategy that will be pursued – ignore the article into non-existence. The people in the US are overloaded by round-the-clock media. Unless something very unusual happens, this article will, in effect, never see the light of day among the other fast-growing media stories. Over the last few years, in particular, this has happened with other articles and reports all too numerous to count. The televangelists will keep on shouting “Atheists have no morals”, “Society is falling apart due to sex, drugs and humanism”, “We need a Theocracy” and so on. And the truth?

Teddy Roosevelt, an early US unilateralist, had a saying ‘Speak softly but carry a big stick’. That’s a pretty good description of truth. It speaks softly, its voice not as loud as the shrill call of the electrified preachers nor of the politicos that work hand-in-hand with them, but we ignore it at our own peril. God might test the faithful but truth punishes the ignorant.

If they're on our side, where do I sign to opt out?

From the BBC NEWS site:

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has said that America must not abandon its mission in Iraq.

She said the American public had to realise the consequences of ceding the country to “barbaric kilers”.

That would be as opposed to the ‘coalition’ troops that are estimated to have killed more Iraqis since invasion than Hussein is estimated to have done during his whole term in power (The Lancet study estimated about 100 thousand and that was about a year ago), that destroyed a whole city (Falluja – the numbers of those who died there not being included in The Lancet study but, if they had been, being estimated at 200,000), who routinely shoot civilians and whose soldiers have themselves photographed with their trophies – the torn remains of those they’ve killed – in order to get access to a porn site.

But even to own up to the fact that ‘our’ side is barbaric and murderous would not be to face the whole truth. We have abandoned Iraq already. It is largely controlled by now by the various militias, partisans, criminal gangs and, yes, terrorists with the ‘coalition’ troops staying most of their time in their high-security bases and only venturing out on raids. It’s much like Vietnam, the difference being that instead of a jungle, you have cities full of civilians.

And there’s more. Rice says that people have to realise the consequences of leaving Iraq. Of course, she wants to imply that the place will turn into (even more of) a blood-bath. Well, actually, nobody knows what the consequences would be though they would be sure to be different depending on how Iraq is ‘left’. Certainly, at least one very experienced Iraq expert (Robert Fisk) does not think that a civil war is at all possible.

So, all in all, I’m impressed – somehow Rice manages to combine at least three falsehoods in the one sentence. Mind you that kind of concentrated BS doesn’t come naturally but has to mature over years. I mean, if I said “We have to realise the consequences of ceding Mars to the humans!” people would just look funny at me. The mystery of that kind of BS is all in the years of preparation that goes into making possible a complete disconnect with reality.

No wonder they’re ‘born again’.