Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Excuse me, you guys with Zeus or with the SCA?

Hundreds of followers of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Artemis, Aphrodite and Hermes stood in a circle, a mile from the Acropolis, in what was the first official religious service allowed in the grounds of an Ancient Greek temple.

Hundreds of followers! There are hundreds of people who are willing to pray to a deity last seen on a Xena re-run? When I heard about a group wanting to stage a religious service to the Gods of Olympus I had imagined maybe a dozen. Hearing there were hundreds, I was dumbfounded. And, then, I saw the video of the actual ceremonies! At university during the orientation week I would sometimes see some people from the Society for Creative Anachronism walking across the campus in full armour or home-made versions of twelfth century dresses – those guys could learn a fair bit about historical costuming from the Zeus crowd! Or is it that the worshippers knew someone who’d worked on one of the Hercules re-makes?
The whole thing is quite astounding and, well, ridiculous. The number of people who took part in the ceremonies, however, forced me to realise something that may be difficult to accept. I am sure that most of those who took part, like the guy from Melbourne in the BBC article, are just normal everyday people rather than some special kind of lunatic. So, looking at them, we are looking at us. And I do not mean just religious people, I mean people in general.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

What’s left of religion once science’s finished with it?

It seems like everywhere you turn you hear the same old line that science and religion are perfectly compatible. I suspect that people hope that, so long as they keep repeating that, it will become true. And, in a weak sense it will, in the sense that so long as people insist on viewing the two as compatible, it is less likely that a serious social conflict will arise between the two. However, statements of the alleged compatibility of religion and science really ought not to be thought of as anything else than public service announcements. As I observed previously, the only way in which religion can avoid conflict with science is by not making any claims about the world. The issue can be looked at in general terms as well as in terms of the specifically Christian beliefs.
In general terms the question has to be understood as one of whether religious claims and scientific claims come into conflict. A number of assumptions play a significant role here. The most basic one is that both science and religion make claims. What is more, in the case of science, the claims that it makes change and develop over time, coming to include new kinds of claims about domains that science previously had nothing to say about. It is this property of science that makes it particularly difficult for religion to find some domain in which its claims might be thought to be safe from scientific examination. The problem is made even worse when we consider that science is nothing more than simply what we normally do to understand the world but, just, made more methodologically self-aware, thorough and structured both socially and conceptually. What a biochemist does is in no essential terms different from what a detective does. So, really the question is not one of a possible conflict between the claims made by science and by religion but one of a conflict between the claims made by religion and what is revealed by rational enquiry of any sort. To avoid a conflict it would, therefore, have to be the case that religion makes claims that either can not be investigated rationally or that, if investigated, will necessarily be found to be correct.
The second of these possibilities looks highly implausible due to historical evidence. In the case of religion, various religions make various claims and even individual religions make different claims at different times. Much the same is true of rational enquiry. Given such variation it seems impossible to avoid disagreement between religious and rational claims, if the two concern the same kinds of issues – much as it would be impossible to avoid having two clocks that run at different speeds tell different times. This leaves the possibility that, given enough time, religion and intellectual or empirical enquiry will lead to the same conclusions. However, in so far as there is any evidence for a growing agreement between religion and enquiry it is, I would claim, only due to religion giving up those of its claims that most strikingly conflict with what has been discovered.
So, is it the case that religion is only making claims that are not open to enquiry? I think it is very clear that this has not been the case historically. Still, we can investigate the question of what sort of religion we would have if it did seek not to make claims that would be open to rational enquiry. The essential assumption which would have to be made to give this alternative even prima facie plausibility is that there are claims which can not be investigated and thus found to be false. The problem is that such claims would have to not only not be open to being tested by experiment but of being investigated even by methods such as conceptual analysis. Any kind of enquiry, empirical or intellectual-philosophical, might end up showing religious claims to be incorrect. Of course, philosophical enquiry, as I have previously mentioned, is open to constant obstruction by the invention of ad hoc modifications aimed at forestalling the falsification of the religious claims. However, even in that case, if one assumes that one is dealing with a reasonable person, the weight of the ad hoc modifications will in the end bring down the claims being defended. So, to avoid possible conflict religious claims must be utterly uninvestigable. Adding “uninvestigable… by reason”, although it might seem appropriate and capable of granting refuge to religion, is really a false move as reason need not be understood here as anything more than merely the ability of cognise and that is essential to all investigation, even the most mystical – assuming there are any such effective methods of investigation. To argue that there are any claims which are totally uninvestigable yet meaningful is an extraordinarily strong claim to make. One possible area where such a view might be thought to have been held is that of ethics. However, this view unsupportable for two basic reasons. First of all, if it were true it would mean that meaningful discussion of ethics would be impossible – discussing different ethical views would be like comparing personal tastes – hardly the basis for any ethical position claiming to be objective. Secondly, ethics has been investigated since the beginnings of human culture, be it through the philosophy of Plato or the plays of Sophocles, and is now even being opened up to scientific investigation through investigations of the evolutionary-biological roots of ethics.
All this adds up to the conclusion that were religion to attempt to avoid any possible conflict with science it would have to forego all of its claims only leaving behind a faint ethereal glow. The case can be made particularly clearly with the example of Christianity.
Most modern Christians are willing to allow that the story of Adam and Eve is just that – a story. They are willing to allow that science is correct when it finds that the universe is around 18 billion years old and that the human species evolved from an ape ancestor it shares with the Chimpanzee. To allow this much is only to allow the results of our finest investigations of the world we live in and, as such, uncontroversial assuming that one is rational and informed. However, most Christians do not recognise that allowing this much makes nonsense of their basic religious beliefs. The problem is that, if Adam and Eve never existed and, therefore, never ate any apples, the original sin never took place and Christ’s death on the cross could in no way redeem us from it – a notion which, of course, is both profoundly immoral and ludicrous in itself. Given the capacity Christian apologists have shown over the centuries to invent post hoc ways of dealing with intellectual progress it should be no surprise that various ways of side-stepping this problem have been invented. However, most Christians do not deal with them by juggling theological and scientific concepts but, merely, by using the human capacity for doublethought, to use Orwell’s apt term. At one time they think that evolution is true at another that Christ redeemed us from original sin. And, normally, never the twain meet. Indeed, it is thanks to this all too human capacity to think inconsistent thoughts that religion and science do not normally conflict for most people. The public figures, be they scientists or theists or both, who insist religion and science are compatible are, in effect, motivating people to continue to doublethink. The fundamentalists who reject science because they recognise it conflicts with religion are being more intellectually honest in this respect.

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What does London remind you of?

Although I grew up in an English-speaking country and spent much of my youth reading about the history of the British culture and society – my memories of being a teenager now filled with visions of various medieval English monasteries, battles and villages all to a Mike Oldfield soundtrack – I have never spent more than a couple of hours in England travelling between the various London airports. And now that I am about to go to England for a week I find myself feeling as nervous as if I was about to meet my fiancée’s parents for the first time. Most of my cultural references are in some way tied to Great Britain, be it my favourite poets or my favourite TV shows. Many London landmarks are as familiar to my mind as the streets on which I grew up. Indeed, I feel as if the English language, itself, was integral to what I am – I very much look forward to being surrounded by once more. Some would say, I guess, that I am in the typical position of someone who grew up in one of the countries of the Commonwealth – permeated by English culture, yet separated from the actual place and the actual identity. So, when the time to reconcile the private visions with the reality comes it is likely to be difficult. Of course, I do not have the naïve view of England as a place that is in some way better or different. Indeed, I expect that most striking for me will be the similarities, similarities that, living in Europe, I would have come to have miss. Strangely, maybe England will end up mostly reminding me of growing up on the other side of the world.

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And you thought it was just a legend, didn’t you?

Human rationality is bounded in every possible way. Human irrationality, however, is boundless. This may be what drew to it the latest bunch of humans to give public expression to their foolishness:
Worshippers who believe in the 12 gods of ancient Greece are trying to stage a ceremony at the Temple of Zeus in Athens on Sunday.

That’s right, these people claim to think that Zeus exists. In fact, given what the Greek myths are like, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them claimed that they’d actually had it off with Zeus, Apollo and Poseidon, all in various animal forms. Now, I’m all for Bacchanalia but that is ridiculous. Of course, the Greek Orthodox Church does not see the humorous side of it and has got the big guns out:
The Orthodox Church has said they are miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion.

As opposed to miserable upholders of a degenerate dying religion, I guess. They really shouldn’t worry. There’s plenty of crazy to go around.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What's a school worth?

Although not normally interested in the doings of celebrities, I have been paying quite a bit of attention to Oprah Winfrey’s project of opening an elite school for South Africa’s disadvantaged girls and have been somewhat taken aback by the criticism she has suffered for her efforts. Salon.com has quite a good article about it in which both the motivation of the critics and of Oprah herself is considered. One thing in the article I would definitely not agree with is the idea that people are free to do what they want with their money – money is power and people who have power are morally obligated to use it wisely and to the advantage of not just themselves but the broader community. Getting back to the school, while I understand the questions about Oprah’s particular motivation, I think the whole project is potentially the best use she could have put her money to.
One of the arguments that have been raised is that her money is only going to benefit the particular seventy something girls that the school will be accepting per year whereas it could have been used to help many more people. To say that, however, is to ignore what the graduates of that school will do in the broader community after leaving the school. The girls who finish it will probably become part of South Africa’s future professional class. For black girls from poor families to become lawyers, journalists, economists, scientists and even politicians in a society which until recently basically only had white males from well-off families in those roles must be seen to have a broader impact than just the lives of those few girls who get to attend Winfrey’s academy. The laws have changed since the apartheid era but what Winfrey is doing is changing the social reality by, in the long term, changing the social mix of those who will be in the position to affect RSA’s future. I just hope that the girls will manage once they leave the school behind and are forced to deal once again with the harsh realities of South Africa’s society.
The general point worth raising is that well-conceived educational projects are usually a very good social investment – the benefits that flow from such projects being so multifaceted that it is impossible to do them justice in a few short paragraphs. I can only hope that the educational programme at the academy will be designed to teach the girls intellectual skills such as curiosity and independence of thought. Knowing what little about Winfrey’s views of education I could not help but pick up from being exposed to American celebrity culture, this seems quite likely. All in all, I can only comment that I hope that if I had her money I would have her good sense to fund such a project.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What's the use of arguing?

Like many other atheists I am quite fond of sometimes picking on some of the idiotic things that theists believe and showing the problems with what they are saying. I’ve certainly done so in many things that I have mentioned in this blog. It very nicely refreshes one’s inflated sense of superiority and usually without hurting anyone in the process. Still, such intellectual therapy has its limitations. Such as that invariably, if one actually goes and looks, the theists have thought of the objection about fifteen hundred years ago and have been designing every newer responses to it. Not that the responses are necessarily great but very often they are definitely such as to turn aside the blade of the simple objection. This is pretty much what the scholastic philosophers cut their teeth on and the Catholic Church has been running an on-going, well-funded ‘research project’ on this ever since. By the time they finish theological college, the more competent of the Church’s apologists have a whole battery of replies ready for most of the things I or anyone else who only does this as a hobby will ever come up with. Sure, some priests say really silly things but this has more to do with their lack of intellectual competence (a most ecumenical of traits) than with the lack of developed Christian apologist doctrine. So, when we talk of the problem of evil or anything else, the Vatican’s elite battalions are more than capable of either dazzling our with their defence’s brilliance or, failing that, of baffling us with their BS – making us feel incapable of responding adequately unless we’ve read everyone from Saint Paul through Saint Thomas and ending with the various modern schools of theological thoughts.
The basic problem is that, no matter the competence of an objection, it is always possible to largely save the position objected to by inventing some work around to avoid the problem. Free will and God’s foreknowledge incompatible? – give us a few years and we’ll think of the idea that God exists outside of time so this (supposedly) is no longer a difficulty. Charles Sanders Peirce called this kind of thinking ‘sham reasoning’ because, rather than looking for the truth, it assumes that the truth has already been obtained and all that needs to be done is protect it against all possible objections. Susan Haack wrote a good article ten years for Sceptical Inquirer in which she distinguishes real inquiry from the sham and the fake:
A genuine inquirer aims to find out the truth of some question, whatever the color of that truth. This is a tautology (Webster's: "inquiry: search for truth . . ."). A pseudo-inquirer seeks to make a case for the truth of some proposition(s) determined in advance. There are two kinds of pseudo-inquirer, the sham and the fake. A sham reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to make a case for some immovably-held preconceived conviction. A fake reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to advance himself by making a case for some proposition to the truth-value of which he is indifferent.

The problem is that the distinction lies at the level of the motivation of the reasoners. At the level of the arguments one can not simply say – that’s sham reasoning – and, therefore, ignore it. Either the argument is good or it is not, whatever the motivation of those who put it forward. Knowing how to deal with that is difficult. Normally, when arguing with someone, the assumption is that everyone is interested in getting at the truth, but what about when that is self-evidently not the case?
A few months ago at a conference I ran into a couple guys who were constructivists/post-modernists/whatever whose defence against many objections that were raised against their views was that they were simply presenting a viewpoint and that we were free to accept it or reject it. When they found that I had these strange notions about the truth of statements being in some way dependent upon how the world is they decided to try and argue with me. They were mightily surprised when I straight out refused to argue with them and instead preferred to talk about good books they’d read or good wine they’d drunk. My reason was that I did not see any point in engaging in an activity that I am very serious about when they freely denied being serious about it. I do not argue to show how clever I am but to get at the truth or, at least, that is what I believe and if I did not believe that I would feel that I was a fake. It made about as much sense as trusting a self-avowed sociopath.
Religious apologists are, of course, very serious but, as Haack points out, the seriousness is of a different sort – with sham reasoning truth becomes eclipsed by The Truth. Dennett says that he ignores the arguments of theologians for the simple reason that everyone else does as well. And, at most times, that is pretty much what I do myself. However, the reason why everyone else does it isn’t due to some properly worked out justification – they just see the argumentations as irrelevant (in so far as they are even aware of their existence). Once one becomes even slightly more concerned with the area it becomes necessary to consciously decide upon the right attitude to take. The key to me seems to be the lack of any empirical check upon the ontologies built up by theologians. The only limitation is that the story as a whole makes sense to those who tell it. This difference is the difference Peirce put in terms of two of his four ways of fixing belief. The first two were tenacity and authority. The ones in question here were a priori reasoning and the scientific method. In the case of a priori reasoning all that was required is that the resultant view-point fits with our preconceptions. In the case of the scientific method, the aim is to get the views to fit our experience – and that is far less well behaved and pliable than our preconceptions. Unfortunately, when you turn to the sorts of questions that apologists deal with, it is somewhat impossible to get solid empirical data. This, to me, undermines much of the possibility for having properly reasoned discussions of the topic, i.e. discussions in which the reasoning goes hand in hand with actual evidence. Which leads to what has been my effective stance – to avoid having to deal with such things in anything more than a dilettante way, not believing that anything more is actually really possible given the sham intellectual attitude of most of the discussants and the lack of hard data. This also explains why I found Dennett’s call to look at religion, as a phenomenon, from a scientific point of view so refreshing. Here he was offering a new approach that may actually lead to results where all we’ve had is the construction of ever great numbers of epicycles.
Now, I’m not altogether happy with everything I’ve said here but it is a start to thinking about it.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Double or nothing?

What, if anything, is Bush’s strategy in making it sound like he wants to increase the conflict in the Middle East? Does he have some idea that by causing even more trouble he can become the War President again or is it that his mind, as well as those of his administration, have long ago been transferred into an alternative universe and only his body is uttering sounds that not even hawkish Republicans think have any relation whatsoever to this reality?

I think the sci-fi explanation looks the likelier.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

What does a third century philosopher have to do with Don Corleone?

Origen is rarely read these days. But, even so, he is very often unknowingly copied. I am currently reading about this early Christian philosopher in Martin’s Inventing Superstition, in particular about Origen’s book Contra Celsum, in which he argues against the views of one of Christianity’s earliest critics – Celsus (of course, Celsus’ book did not manage to survive the hegemony on writing that the Church had throughout the Dark Ages and only ‘exists’ in so far as it is cited by Origen).
Martin provides (on page 185) the following adroit synopsis of Origen’s view of the world:

The Christian view, at least as represented by Origen, teaches that the supreme God and all those angels and powers subservient to him are good and benevolent. Any harm from them is for our betterment. There are also some experiences we have that seem evil but are attributable to the constraints of reality. But there is also evil directly attributable to an entire force of the universe in temporary opposition to God – daimons and those under their influence. Daimons, which include the gods of the nations, are completely evil; they are fallen angels exercising their wills against God. Christians must choose either the protection of the latter or the destruction of the former.

Martin, himself, compares this ontology to that of a Mafia boss but upon reading his synopsis I felt it all too familiar from a great number of contexts. It seems to me that not just the Mafia but demagogues and dictators in general have cottoned on to much the same ontology. Thus, using the communist and the Bushit examples, a list of one-to-one counterparts may be found:

God = The Party = Dubya
Angels = Party members = The neo-con administration
Constraints of reality = Constraints of reality = Constraints of reality
Satan = USA = Osama/Clinton/whoever
Daimons = Imperialist agents = Terrorists/Democrats/whoever
The basic paranoid form of the ontology carries over very easily, justifying abuse of power in order to “protect against the shadowy force of the week”. After all, the all-mighty forces of good are sure to triumph in the end (indeed, they would have already were it not for the constraints of reality). This is, of course, just the ontology that Orwell presents in his 1984. Recognising this repeated reproduction of the paranoid ontology isn’t, therefore, all that fresh an insight. It is important to ask a question, however – to what degree is Origen’s world-view being reproduced in a thousand ways because it is the world-view of the world’s largest religious grouping and to what degree it has become so successful due to how easily it justifies the abuse of power by those who have it. I suspect that the second of these considerations is the more basic – the view of the Greek philosophers that all beings of greater force than humans were also of superior virtue would not serve power quite as well. To use Dawkins’ term, the paranoid ontology is a very successful meme because it improves the ability of those who have it to spread it. This may be, therefore, just the kind of pernicious religious meme that Dan Dennett considers the existence of – a parasitic meme which spreads while causing harm to the people who are infected with it.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

What’s forgiveness got to do with it?

No great surprise. The Archbishop of Warsaw, who had been a communist spy and who, quite brazenly, had just a day earlier wanted to none-the-less retain his post, had a sudden change of heart and decided to resign from the position. Almost definitely after a terse phone-call from the Vatican.
As the BBC reports, “the episode is an unprecedented embarrassment for the Catholic Church in Poland.” This could be grounds for a round of shadenfreude but I do not think so, certainly not in the case of the now ex-Archbishop. For someone as young as myself it is almost impossible to understand the pressures he must have been under during the communist era. Indeed, when I come to think of it, I am not at all sure that I would not have succumbed to those pressures and not acted in much the same way – that system made breaking people into a fine art. So, I take no joy from his personal misfortune. This might sound like I feel similarly to those who, calling for Christian forgiveness, wanted him to be allowed to stay in his position. However, forgiveness has little to do with the need for his resignation.
In a sense the issue does not concern me, since I am not a Catholic or any kind of Christian. Still, I am just as capable of forgiveness as those who try to put a religious label on it. And, however one might be willing to forgive the man for his actions, that can not be seen as in any way justifying retaining him in a position of authority. I may be willing to forgive a man who stole from me but I would be a fool to ask him to hold my wallet. Comparisons have been made with Christ forgiving Peter for denying him during his crucifixion but the comparison is false. Firstly, if Peter hadn’t denied knowledge of Christ he would have been subject to the same tortures as Christ while the Polish priest collaborated, as he himself revealed, to further his career. Indeed, it was partly thanks to this collaboration, as a result of which he was allowed to take a German scholarship, that he first became rector of a Catholic university and then archbishop. Secondly, not being all-knowing we have to go on a person’s past behaviour to judge how they will act in the future. God allegedly does not suffer from such limitations and could be sure that Peter would do a good job of leading his Church (although, of course, in the end it was Paul who actually did so).
To the degree that I am happy about what happened it is only because it serves as another reminder to us how fallible people are. One can only hope that it will make people more wary of claiming to be the Second Coming or of waiting for any other kind of Übermensch and more likely to understand that we only progress by working together assiduously.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

What more could you expect from a moral rebirth?

A little over a year ago Poland elected a new Parliament and President. Both sets of elections were won by the right-wing Law and Justice party running under the banner of getting rid of corruption and improving morality, and led by the sour-faced Kaczynski twins. Their mandate was quite limited given that they only received a couple of per cent more than another right-wing party, Civic Platform, which ran with a generally liberal, business-oriented programme and given that the two parties were widely assumed to go into coalition after the elections. The main left-wing party that had previously governed collapsed in those elections, barely getting enough votes to get back into parliament, the rest of the seats being taken by a farmers party, the far right League of Polish Families and the populist Self-Defence party.
After the elections, however, the Law and Justice party continued its attack on Civic Platform, apparently seeking to get that party to accept a very much secondary role instead of the almost equal role that the almost equal number of seats they held would seem to justify. In the end, instead of forming a coalition with Civic Platform, the Kaczynski brothers, now in the roles of President and Prime Minister, formed an on-again off-again loose coalition with the right wing League of Polish Families and the populist Self-Defence. This was, to say the least, a shock for most, seeing that both those parties has previously been considered to be politically untouchable, for good reason. Such was the start of the new, morally superior, less corrupt Poland. The year since then has been filled with just the kind of news that one would expect.
So, the Law and Justice party has gone on to make thousands of centrally controlled appointments of new public servants, starting with government controlled media and going on to education, diplomacy, treasury and all other areas where the government is in the position to affect things. The new appointments have all been made strictly according to party allegiance with experienced, politically neutral public servants being replaced by incompetent yahoos who, were it not for their ties to the Kaczynskis, would not even be considered to be suitable for work experience in the various departments they have ended up leading. The results of such appointments have been immediate, with numerous infamously egregious decisions being made and the work of the state coming apart as we watch.
Clearly, the only consideration the twins have is to ensure they get complete control over all aspects of public life. This approach is motivated by their paranoid view that Poland is still secretly ruled by an alliance of communists and ‘liberals’ i.e. anyone who does not agree with them. The Kaczynskis see themselves as in a continued battle for Poland’s existence against shadowy forces rather than as the custodians of a new Poland that faces a period of unprecedented opportunity within the EU. It is this paranoid view of the world that has led them down the path they have chosen and which, for them, justifies all possible methods “for the good of the country.” A good example of this was provided by a video showing two senior members of the party offering a senior Self-Defence parliamentarian all manner of inducements, including political positions and the provision of financial surety for thousands of Euro in order to get her to change her party allegiance.
At the same time, their coalition partners, the Self-Defence party and the League of Polish Families, have gone on to do what comes naturally to them.
Thus, in the case of the League, the father of Deputy Prime Minister Giertych, who is a European parliamentarian, spoke out against evolution and in favour of teaching creationism. At the same time, the leaders of the party’s youth wing, widely known as the Giertych Jugend, keep getting photographed with their right hands stretched out in the Hitler salute. Of course, such behaviour is not really looked well upon in a country that lost six million of its people during the Second World War, a country dotted with old concentration camps that serve as a reminder of that horrendous time, so Giertych has been recently forced to break off official ties with that youth group. Still, that has not meant that membership in the youth group can not be combined with that of the party and, indeed, there have not been any major changes other than those on paper. Certainly, many of the League’s current parliamentarians first came to the fore by being active in that youth group and this is not seen as a problem. Nor is any of this a problem for Giertych continuing in his portfolio of Education Minister in which he has been busy lowering teaching standards while trying to bring back eighteenth century disciplinarianism.
In the case of Self-Defence, the environs of a courtroom are quite familiar to many ‘activists’ but, far from being due to accusations of promoting any ideology, they are, instead, due to accusations of petty or not so petty larceny – with at least one past Self-Defence parliamentarian now spending all his time in that other state institution, prison. More recently, however, accusations of molesting, providing jobs in exchange for sex and, even, rape have been added to the mix with a number of women that had once been active in the party making official accusations to the police. The two men in the centre of the scandal, and yet to be charged, are a party parliamentarian and the party founder and leader, Deputy Prime Minister Lepper – an odious character with a long history of aggrandising himself while thumbing his nose at the law or any basic sense of decency. To add to that, several people have made accusations that, when one of the women became pregnant, a veterinarian was called in and she was forced to have an injection to try and cause a late miscarriage.
The Kaczynski brothers promised to change the morality of public life in Poland and they certainly have succeeded. Even the Polish Catholic Church has seemingly decided to join in with this programme. The Archbishop of Warsaw, after having denied everything for weeks and having accused those making claims against him of all manner of things, has – once the documents were shown to all of Poland – spoken of his contrition at having been a spy for the communist secret police and begged forgiveness. And, to fit in with the new moral norms, expects to retain his position as the country’s effective religious leader. In fact, his behaviour has a number of precedents, when Lepper, for example, was first accused of molesting women he went to Poland’s holiest shrine to pray for a change in the moral standards of Polish public life. I can not help but think that he was hoping they would be further lowered to better accommodate him.
After all this, the Kaczynski brothers are still President and Prime Minister (and blame everything on ‘shadowy forces’), Giertych and Lepper are still Deputy Prime Ministers and the Archbishop of Warsaw stills leads faithful Catholics in prayer. Still, let it not be said that nothing is done to improve Poland’s morality. The police arrested a drunk, homeless man for shouting abuse about Kaczynski. Unfortunately, when he was brought to trial the judge threw the case out on the grounds that Kaczynski’s public image did not suffer due to the man’s drunken ravings. I guess the judiciary will have to be next in the twins’ drive to change Poland for the better.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

How many more where he came from?

I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. Particularly people with whom I disagree. So, when I heard that one of the Polish Archbishops was accused of having worked for the secret police of the communist government that tried to destroy the Church, my reaction was to disbelieve the report. And I had good grounds for disbelieving – the journalists who’d reported this failed to provide any evidence that such collaboration had taken place. But that was a week ago. Today, the archbishop’s secret files have been made public and they include signed statements from him agreeing to spy for the communist secret police:
The Roman Catholic Church in Poland says the new archbishop of Warsaw was a collaborator with the former communist regime, amid an escalating row.
And this is the guy who is supposed to effectively head the Polish Church and who had earlier been the rector of the Catholic university at which JP2 had taught. Thus far, he has not said a word but, at this point it looks very much like either him stepping down (perhaps with a push from the Vatican) or, less likely, the Vatican stepping in and officially removing him. If he stays in a position of authority within the Church he will be a massive liability to it given that it holds its powerful position in Poland to a great degree due to the role it was seen to play in the opposition to Communist rule (a role which, as I always point out to people, it did not play due to any qualms about communism’s stance on human rights but due to its atheism; after all, the whole Church in Spain collaborated with the Fascists).
Another thing that I always say is that these kinds of scandals are nothing for an atheist to be happy about. While they might get people to move away from one Church, they do nothing to diminish the need people feel for religion, so they are only likely to get people to join other, possibly more dangerous, religious groups.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Was superstition invented?

Started reading Inventing Superstition by Dale Martin. It’s about what the ancient Greeks and Romans thought about superstition. Should be quite fascinating to read. I have, however, a few problems with what I’ve read thus far.
The first is that Martin seems to be influenced by the currently popular social constructivism. To a certain degree this is not an issue – he is discussing only what people’s ideas were about superstition, so the question of whether social reality is the ultimate reality or whether there is something like a physical reality that underlies it does not enter into the picture for the most part. However, the problem shows up when the difference between people’s ideas about superstition and the actual phenomenon of superstition becomes important. There, Martin ends up ‘confusing the map with the territory’ and, therefore, can not deal with a question like – Do the similarities and differences in how superstition has been viewed at various times show that there is something real tied to people’s concepts? This question, however, is the very question that interests me (though not Martin, obviously; even though his title suggests a negative answer).
The second problem I have is that Martin does everything to argue against the idea that the ancient philosophers like Aristotle had views which might be deemed scientific, denying the existence of what we would call these days ‘the supernatural’. He gets into real problems here, repeatedly contradicting himself in the space of a few pages. In the end he comes down to roughly saying that the ancient philosophers simply rejected the view of gods as having such negative human characteristics as greed, jealousy and anger while seeing them as forces that acted in general ways in the real world. The problem with this claim is that it is too weak to show that these philosophers did not reject ‘the supernatural’. Their position has, historically, given rise both to Christian religious views through Augustine and the medieval scholastics and, also, the views of Newton and scientists. The difference to a certain degree can be brought down to the question of whether the forces which determine the course the world takes are personal or not. By denying them human foibles, the ancient philosophers were definitely headed in the scientific direction. To be able to judge how far they, themselves, travelled in that direction it would be necessary to understand to what degree they thought of the gods as actual persons. And, the mere fact that they talked of gods does not show them to be theists in any substantive sense. Einstein famously talked of God not playing dice, after all, and he was very much an atheist, using the term only to mean ‘nature’ or ‘the basic forces underlying reality’ and definitely not meaning ‘an actual person of great power’.
Having said this, I still think Martin’s book should be very valuable for me and I look forward to getting further into it.

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All those who think Christ is King should say aye, right?

Whatever Tony Abbott gets up to in the future, I just hope he doesn’t get ideas from this bunch:
A group of Polish members of parliament have submitted a bill seeking to proclaim Jesus Christ king of their overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Even the Polish Catholic Church thinks this is a nutty idea. There is a back story to this, however. Part of the reason for why this insanity is being discussed now is that just a couple of weeks ago the country’s main paper printed a story accusing a couple of the MPs from one of the parties in the government, including the party’s leader, of offering jobs and positions on party tickets in exchange for sex. Since then, the story has only grown, with numerous women coming forward to tell their stories, including one about a veterinarian trying to cause a late miscarriage. And this is a government whose stated aim is to clean up Polish politics and whose ideology is conservative Catholicism (the minor party in which this has been happening is more populist than religion-based).
It’s very hard not to become cynical about the motivations of supposedly Catholic MPs, isn’t it. I suspect Jesus would not appreciate the compliment.

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A faith-based initiative, mate?

Here’s an exercise. First, read the following story:

The federal Health Minister says the Catholic Church will run part of the Government's multi-million dollar pregnancy counselling service aimed at reducing the number of abortions in Australia.

Now, try to think of all the reasons why this is not a good thing. Please try to keep your answer to under ten single-spaced pages.
Please note: This is going on in Australia, not the States! This religious Bushit is highly contagious – the Health Minister Tony Abbott is infamously a conservative Catholic and is one of those whose names get mentioned as possible future Prime Minister material. Scary.

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How much ethics can a two-year-old understand?

Our daughter, at this point, still falls asleep in the same bed as we do. However, as she has grown very rapidly the bed has got too small for the three of us. Particularly as she has the habits of taking at least one large teddy bear to cuddle as she falls asleep, of sleeping sideways across the bed and of moving around so much that she ends up kicking us in our faces. So, we have been letting her fall asleep in our bed (while I do a last bit of work before sleep) but then moving her into her bed. Still, this is getting somewhat tricky as she gets heavier and harder to move without waking up.
The other evening we tried to get her to fall asleep in her own bed, something she has sometimes managed. Unfortunately, she reacted rather badly to this and was getting very, very upset with the idea – trying to crawl over the bars on her bed and begging to be let out – so, in the end, we let her fall asleep in our bed (while my wife and I looked on, as there wasn’t the space for all three of us to lie down). She was resting nicely, almost asleep when she looked up at us, sat up, kissed my wife and said “I’m sorry,” before lying down again and finally falling asleep.
My wife and I looked at each other silently, flabbergasted. Here was a two-year-old with the awareness to know she had behaved inappropriately and the ability to apologise for it even though she’d actually got what she had wanted! This seems to be a level of what could not be called anything else but ethical awareness that is striking at that age, a level which some people never reach. I still feel the buzz seeing her do that made me feel.

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