Friday, 14 December 2007

Curtains in the Arena

With Christmas looming, and another New Year hard on its heels, I have decided to take a rest from blogging, except occasionally. Other more necessary tasks claim priority on my limited energy, and after a year of continuous posting I feel I am becoming repetitive and too predictable.

So thank you, my regular readers and commentators, and also my silent audience, for your interest and support. I shall continue to look in on other blogs and post comments there from time to time when the mood takes me.

A merry Christmas everyone, and may 2008 bring some of the blessings of peace and greater tranquillity which everyone of goodwill surely desires.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Reason, religion, and reality

Here is another post which first appeared about a year ago and has topical and seasonal relevance:

Discussion of religion is becoming more and more hazardous in the 21st Century as believers of various stripes all over the world engage in increasingly irrational, aggressive, and violent antics in the name of their faiths. Apologists for the creeds in question, or for religion in general, are fond of saying “Ah! But you see, what these misguided people are doing isn’t the TRUE Christianity, Islam, etc. They woefully misunderstand the lofty teachings of their faiths.” On the contrary - it is abundantly clear that religion makes otherwise good people do bad things.

What, in fact, IS religion? And how “real” is it? I am increasingly coming to realise that religion, like all other constructs of the human mind, has no objective reality outside the imaginings of those who profess it. Of course, the actions religious belief generates impinge, often horrendously and disastrously, upon millions of non-believers; but the reality of religiously motivated behaviour does not make religion itself any more real.

To clarify: unless one believes in Platonic universals, there is no “perfect” archetypal Judaism, Roman Catholicism, or Islam “out there” in the abstract, any more than there is a perfect archetypal Platonic table or chair. Institutionalised religions have history, traditions, possessions, priests and other functionaries, but these do not make the religion any more “real” than it is in its individual living believers’ brains.

Religions are based upon faith, not reason. At some point – however sophisticated their self-regarding arguments – all religions demand the suspension of reason and a crucial leap of faith. They have no room for sceptical doubting Thomases. That being so, they will always attempt to ring-fence their “sacred” doctrines from reasoned criticism, which they denounce as blasphemy or - in the case of lapsed believers - apostasy, and regard as heinous crimes, sometimes even punishable by death.

So even if we confine this discussion to the three monotheistic religions, we are confronted with the spectacle of a myriad of conflicting sects each claiming that they are the “true” brand of the religion in question, and that those who disagree with them are wicked heretics: “My doxy is orthodoxy; your doxy is heterodoxy.”

What is the non-believer to make of all this? In the first place, we should be very wary indeed of taking sides with any religion, creed, or sect against its self-designated enemies of the same or other religious traditions. “A plague on all your houses” is the only rational response. We should seek to confine the propagation of religious dogmas to those which do not incite hatred of other faiths, or of non-believers, and which are privately funded. The state should give no public countenance to, and much less subsidise, any religious education. On the contrary, the state should ensure that all children, whatever their religious or community background, are educated in a cohesive system of national education which treats all religious beliefs even-handedly and encourages children to think about them, and everything else, in an open-minded way.

Above all, we must recognise that what religion means to those who count themselves as believers is the only “real” aspect of the whole business. If Catholics are brought up to believe that theirs is the only “true” faith, and that Protestants are wicked heretics, and vice versa, the results will be as we have seen in Northern Ireland for the past couple of centuries and more. If Muslim youths continue to be indoctrinated with the notion that Allah commands them to prevail over “infidels” by whatever means necessary, all we can expect in the foreseeable future is far worse threats of terrorism and sporadic violence than we have yet experienced. If “twice-born” Christians in the USA and elsewhere believe that a nuclear Armageddon in the Middle East will result in their being wafted up to heaven in Rapture, it behoves all who do not share that delusion to do everything possible to disabuse them of it and to abort any possibility of such a scenario occurring.

It has been said that people who believe nonsense will experience awkward consequences. Unfortunately, it is not only the believers in the nonsense who suffer because of it. Indeed, it is those of us who simply want to be left alone in peace to think what we choose and to live as we wish who have most to fear from religion. As a society, we cannot afford to extend tolerance to the intolerant, or to pay respect to the disreputable.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Anti-Crusading zeal

More Muslim umbrage-taking here. They'll be telling us to haul down our English national flag, the Cross of St. George, next....

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Does reason matter?

From time to time, I shall reproduce posts which have appeared previously in Anticant's Arena and Anticant's Burrow because I believe that they still have topical relevance.

Because of the fascinating dialogue currently taking place with Ibrahim Lawson, headmaster of a UK Islamic school, on Stephen Law's blog, I have decided to reprint this which first appeared in the Burrow a year ago.

Reason, we believe – it’s a matter of faith, of course – is what distinguishes the human species from all others. Or, rather, articulate reason: it’s quite clear from observation that some animals possess and use intelligence, and work things out for themselves by a process if reasoning, but they cannot exchange thoughts with us about it or anything else in a meaningful way, as adult human beings can do.

For centuries there has been an ongoing battle between reason and faith. Religious faith, being grounded in the supernatural – itself a speculative concept – claims human reason as its handmaiden, and always seeks to trump it in any argument. One sometimes feels, in arguing with religious people, that they are convinced they know all the answers: they know them right or they know them wrong, but they KNOW them. Their faith is invincible, so why bother to argue? Does it really matter whether the Earth is flat or globular, or whether prayer actually works? Yes it does; because if people base their actions on false assumptions, awkward consequences are bound to follow - not only for the perpetrators, but also for many others who don’t share their beliefs.

Logical reasoning, which is the basis of scientific method, proceeds by testing the probability of various hypotheses against the available evidence to obtain the best ‘fit’. Reasonable people are prepared to abandon even a cherished hypothesis if this is overtaken by a more convincing one. The upholders of faith are not; they know what they know because they BELIEVE it, sometimes against all the evidence. Evidence is not important to them; only faith is. The faith of many believers is grounded in a Holy Book which they are convinced was written by, or at any rate dictated by, a God. The trouble is, there are many Holy Books to choose from, and how do you know which is the “right” one? Jews have the Torah; Christians have the Bible; Muslims have the Koran; Mormons have the Book of Mormon; Christian Scientists have Mrs Eddy’s outpourings, and Scientologists have the works of L Ron Hubbard. A rich smorgasbord of faith! But according to each, theirs is the only true Word of God and the others are all fakes. A good beginning for harmonious inter-faith relations!

The irony of it is that, while denigrating reason, the religious use ingenious displays of it to bolster their irrational creeds. Their persistent casuistry is quite remarkable. The Pope, for instance, loses no opportunity to denounce the insolent hubris of the Enlightenment, an intellectual project which forms the foundation-stone of Western democracy and technological progress.

And of course, religious people are the first to avail themselves of the wondrous creations of modern science such as the internet, the jet airliner, and life-saving medical drugs. With few exceptions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they do not refuse to benefit from the very thought-process which they are constantly denouncing as impious. But where would we be, I wonder, if religion had succeeded in stifling independent scientific thought? Still convinced that the earth is flat and the centre of the universe? [There was, and maybe still is, a Flat Earth Society presided over, I believe - ah, there we go again…- by a Mr Huttle-Glank.] Still travelling by foot, or on horse, camel or mule? [“That person who invented the wheel, impious they were, knew better than God, they did; good thing we put a stop to that by crucifying them. If God had meant us to travel on wheels, He would have built them into the human frame.”] Still relying on witch-doctors and herbal remedies to treat cancer, tuberculosis and malaria? Still burning harmless old women as witches?

Which reminds me, apropos of nothing, of the tale about the hell-fire preacher haranguing his subdued audience about the dismal prospects awaiting them in the nether regions. “And there will be weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth” he yelled. A little old lady in the front row quaveringly piped up: ”But I haven’t got any teeth.” “Make no mistake, Madam”, the preacher retorted, “TEETH WILL BE PROVIDED!”

Creationism is now the religionists’ favourite wheeze for attacking scientific method. It is a hypothesis based entirely upon faith, not evidence, but they want it to be taught in schools as a possible alternative to evolution – a hypothesis with a great deal of evidence to support it which has stood up for 150 years. I have no objection to Creationism being taught in schools, but not as “science”. It should be taught, if at all, as part of religious studies, or to illustrate the crucial differences between faith-based and scientific thinking.

The more religionists succeed in their attack on reason and its proper use, the more the world will descend into a chaotic, strife-ridden mess. It’s time to call a halt to the revolt against reason.

Multiculti madness

Even on April Fool's Day I would have thought this story a bit steep.

The lunatics have not merely taken over the asylum. Now they are running the hospitals as well.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Should the State fund political parties or religious bodies?

IMHO, definitely NOT!

Political parties, churches, and other 'faith-based' institutions are all special interest groups ideologically supported by some members of the larger society who should be prepared to support them financially also, and should not expect those who do not share their political or religious beliefs to contribute to their upkeep.

As a taxpayer, I submit - sometimes grudgingly - to my taxes being used for purposes which the government conceives to be in the national interest, such as education, health care, and defence. Even though I strenuously disagree with some of the policies being pursued in these areas I recognise that they affect the entire population, and therefore cannot be funded privately.

However, where political doctrines or religious dogmas are concerned, I think it is utterly immoral for the State, or those who subscribe to such notions, to expect me and other taxpayers who disagree with them to fork out public money - OUR money - to bail out organisations which can't drum up enough support from their own adherents to keep going. They should cut their coat according to their cloth, or go out of business.

Soft Centre

British politics in this dismal decade resemble a failed sponge cake – brittle and bitter at the edges, and soggy and inert at the centre where the meaningful action should be taking place but isn’t. As W. B. Yeats so eloquently put it in “The Second Coming”,

‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.’

Anyone concerned about the political health of our democracy ought to be worried about this malaise; and a ‘liberal conspiracy’ should be seeking to rectify it.

Today’s public debate is dumbed down in most respects, yet at the same time often snarly and ill-tempered. An interesting perspective is provided by Frank Furedi in Politics of Fear and Invitation to Terrorism. His thesis is that we – the West – have lost our bearings and are confused about our identity and purpose. The public is frightened by the shadowy threats of terrorism and mounting global violence which are hyped up by our elected leaders who, though they mouth platitudes about ‘freedom’ and ‘democratic values’, are bewildered by the nature of others’ hostility to our way of life and respond by encroaching on our own cherished traditional freedoms under the guise of ‘protecting’ us.

So far as Britain is concerned, it is undoubtedly true that over the last couple of decades we have moved into a ‘dependency society’ where more and more groups of people are identified as ‘vulnerable’ and therefore in need of an army of State nannies and supervisors to run their lives. Although we tend to think of our existence in sharply contrasting ‘before and after 9/11’ terms, this trend has been going on far longer than just since 2001, though it has accelerated sharply since then. After a decade of New Labour, we are approaching the point of no return: it is no longer inconceivable that within our lifetimes British citizens will be chipped, tagged, and spied upon by hidden cameras and eavesdropping devices from the cradle to the grave. All in our own best interests, of course. George Orwell’s worst nightmares are coming true.

As a democratic liberal who believes that the State exists for the benefit of the individual, and not the other way round, I find these trends dismaying though not altogether surprising, and certainly not so daunting that I feel constrained from protesting vigorously against them. I do believe, however, that time is getting short; and that the mobilisation of an active Centre majority which will fight every inch of the way for the recovery of our liberties is a highly urgent task for democrats.

By an active Centre, I don’t mean a return to the stale old consensus politics where the Labour and Conservative parties jostle with each other for the middle ground and the difference between them grows less and less. The Tories pulled off this trick in the post-WW2 years so successfully that it ultimately resulted in social and economic stagnation which was only broken by Mrs Thatcher’s plucky but misguided radicalism and ‘dash for freedom’. This has now morphed into New Labour’s embrace of neo-liberal economics, which is the perverse flip-side of its over-nannyish social policies. With this un-Labourlike and unSocialist scenario compounded by Blair’s headlong rush to be Bush’s poodle, it is no wonder that so many on the Left are angry and disgruntled, and feel bitterly betrayed.

This, surely, is where a promising opportunity lies for those of us who seek pragmatic rather than doctrinaire solutions to set out our stall before an increasingly bothered and bemused public. As Furedi rightly points out, the old labels ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are obsolete, and the meaningful divide is between those of us who believe that real national security and social progress will be achieved through trusting the maturity and common sense of the public and those who – wherever on the political compass they envisage themselves to be – seek to control and hobble others because they are frightened that they are losing control.

The spectrum of politics is not semi-circular; it is a full circle where the two extremes of undemocratic Left and Right are near neighbours so indistinguishable that their labels don’t really matter. At present, their strident, angry voices are far too dominant. Impelled by fear, they strive to compel all the rest of us to conform with their political, social, and religious dogmas. The open, tolerant, pluralist Centre is still, I believe, the political preference of the majority of level-headed, shrewd British people who are increasingly depressed and derailed by the raucous voices shouting over their heads and attempting to impose unwanted curbs on how they think and behave.

After a decade in office, Labour is obviously tired and stumbling. It’s worst mistake has been a growing tendency to invade, in Nannyish fashion, the citizen’s right to privacy and integrity. We need a government elected at Westminster that is far more sensitive than the present one to the inalienable values of liberty and what that actually means in terms of policies.

It is time for the commonsense Centre to bestir itself. We should listen less to the feverish chatter from the fringes, and restore a more balanced political discourse to our affairs.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Brown makeover or Mugabe takeover?

A new name for our ruling [just about] party:


I like it!

[hat-tip Dennis on Nanny Knows Best blog.]

Faith schools and 'truth'

A highly important discussion of Islamic schools here on Stephen Law's blog.

Please read the post, and the comments, carefully. This debate hinges on the nature of Truth as perceived by people of faith, and the distinction between education and indoctrination.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Global rottweiler

A huffy comment on my Open Letter to Yankee Doodle taxed me with ignorance of "what America is all about". America is, of course, about many things: one of them, it would seem from this item in today's Sunday Times, is a delusional belief that the USA's government and laws are above those of all other countries so that reciprocity in international relations does not apply.

Apparently it is now the US government's contention that because bounty-hunting 'rendition' [a euphemism for kidnapping] is a good ol' American custom dating back to 19th century Wild West frontier days, their agents are entitled to kidnap anyone anywhere in the world who is 'wanted' by the US courts, regardless of whether or not extradition treaties exist.

And then they plaintively enquire why the rest of the world doesn't love them! Perhaps if they watched fewer Hollywood movies in which the Good Guy is always American, and always comes out on top, they might catch a glimpse of the real world. Only that would be far too painful.