Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Daily Trawl

Missed my Friday Giant due to off-line commitments, but I have read a few things I found interesting over the last couple of days, so here they are.

1. Balls still rolling.

And yet civilisation has failed to grind to a halt.

Good Morning, Denver

It is hard not to notice that two issues which have been daydreams for the left for a very long time have both suddenly gained popular traction and started moving towards resolutions. I’m not the first to draw parallels between marriage equality and cannabis prohibition. One of the things that was remarked on during the process of moving marriage equality from a fringe view to a majority one was that the great post-AIDS growth in activism aimed particularly at living out of the closet had made an enormous difference. The more important people suddenly realised they had a gay relative or friend, the more people who had for years supported the idea but been prevented from speaking out by expediency kept coming out of the woodwork and writing articles.

Something very similar has happened with the growing cracks in the international consensus on cannabis prohibition, and it can be seen easily in the coverage by the FT. After the GCDP report in 2011 in which 149 major world dignitaries outed themselves as in favour of ending cannabis prohibition, the FT published a careful and guardedly positive article pointing out the economic benefits of ending the War on Drugs. There have been several more positive blog posts and op-eds since. But in the last two days they alone have published no less than three different articles [1] on the subject. The Torygraph (oddly) have generally been supportive (they were the main vehicle for Richard Branson’s press campaign in 2011 and 2012) but since ballot legalisation in Colorado took effect several of their authors have come out openly cheerleading for the project. The Independent is not immune. Add in the Nutt-Sack affair, Sanjay Gupta’s informative mea culpa, Uruguay’s current confrontation with the INCB and all the other things that have happened and you can see why this time feels a bit different than last.

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Daily Trawl: money, party, pope and taboo

Yesterday was filled with many things that weren’t blogging, so a large link dump into which I’ll fold concise versions of the thinking I was doing about some items. Below the jump: macro, deficits, austerians, popes, racists, political parties and the terrible price of Anglo hypocrisy.

This shit right here? This is why I am passionate about the end of prohibition.

Daniel Hernandez Favero: innocent, beaten and left for dead by prohibition.

1. Money that matters.
David Andolfatto has a nice piece on who pays the costs to insulate Germany. VoxEU has a long and wonkish piece on global macroeconomics in an era without a hegemon. Krugman has some more austerian myths to bust, or rather the same zombie myths yet again. Ezra Klein has a good view on why deficits matter to politicians more than they actually matter. And Felix Salmon reviews Cameron vs. Wolf and concludes, along with most observers, that the UK Prime Minister is not only talking rubbish but knows it, and is scrambling for any smoke screens he can find.

2. Partisans.
Jonathan Bernstein writes about parties a good deal. This post is looking at incentives, how to measure and analyse what parties ‘want’, and the risks of doing so in an era of extremely strong informal party networks. This is more of a thing there than here, where a significant informal party actor (the Sun) has changed parties twice in the last twenty years. That’s equivalent in their system to Fox News becoming a Democrat attack-dog a few days before the inevitable Obama win.

3. The Dish of the Day.
Andrew Sullivan and his readers at the Dish have been engaged in some very interesting discussions, including one which started from TNC and Jamelle Bouie about the construction of racism among European whites. A number of good points come up, including one I referred to before: that the triangle trade was operated by Africans selling other Africans to Europeans. White people created a new scale of demand, but the enslavement of other Africans was an established institution in Africa long before we showed up. However, the interesting part is about the difference between medieval and modern racism.

Bouie is correct that medieval Europe cared a lot more about your religion than your skin colour. The infidel were inferior, regardless of which tribal fidelity you subscribed to. That is extremely important, because one can (and many did) change religion. The state of being less-than was by definition impermanent, a matter of choice, and thus not innate. There simply was no structured theory of race. Compare with contemporary theories of wealth and class (nobility). That was innate, was blood-bound, and was extremely difficult to change: it required a deliberate act by an annointed prince of God.

What changed when the vigorous doctrines of Calvin interbred with economic and military expediency in the New World to create the dogma of white supremacy is that we redefined the infidel as irredeemable. Early Modern Europe, in parallel with the Enlightenment, invented and institutionalised a theory of innate and irrevocable skin-colour hierarchy which simply didn’t exist in medieval Europe. Cui bono? The aristocrats of Tidewater and the Deep South.

And while we’re talking about medieval religions, we also have a new pope. Another very conservative one, this time with a documented personal history as a direct and active agent of fascism. That’s not an encouraging sign.

4. Liam Fox nails his trousers to the mast.
The title of Alex Massie’s Spectator column is “Liam Fox shows David Cameron how to lead the Tories to a historic defeat”. Choice quotes include:

[…] the kind of man, frankly, that helps explain why the Conservative party has not won a general election majority since 1992.

It’s not the actual toffs who are the problem; it’s the grasping and thrusting self-made Tories who sneer that the rest of the country could be just like them if only they were prepared to bloody work hard enough. This, of course, is meretricious twaddle. These are the Tories who make Mitt Romney look like a political genius.

Strivers vs shirkers? Give me a break

5. Harm reduction
And for anyone following the Prohibition story, here’s a few more people breaking the taboo. Intersectionality between the War on Drugs and the religious right’s War on Women, in the NYT. Scientific American are talking about routine screening programs, which have an alarming false positive rate for something that is now a fact of life for 45% of US workers. Josh Marshall of TPM has a very interesting look at how gay marriage, cannabis prohibition and small-c conservatism triangulated for him over the last few years. And then there’s this. If you want to understand the price paid by poor people of colour to mollify the petty prejudices and cheap moral indignation of aging Anglos, read this article and look at the pictures. Without prohibition, none of this happens.

Back to the Cavalry

Kit Whitfield made an excellent comment on my post about the anti-theist cavalry of the humanist apocalypse. My reply turned out to be some 1300 words long, which is a post not a comment, so I moved it here. It’s still quite long, so here’s a link to the TL;DR paragraph.

The Horsemen of the Apocralypse!In summary, Kit made the point that anti-theist zealots are overwhelmingly white, male, Western and wealthy, and that this makes their frequent internet claims of victimhood somewhat suspicious. It’s worth reading the context, but that’s the broad thrust of it. She also cited this very good article by Natalie Reed, which discussed in passing the problematic nature of people who have such a powerful megaphone choosing to focus on one problem which, by comparison with many other social justice issues, simply isn’t that important except as a method of keeping the spotlight on the concerns of rich white men.

I then started a comment saying: I’m not in a position to address Kit’s main points directly. Firstly, I’m not really on any side here; I may be an atheist (though it’s hard to tell), I subscribe to a religion, and I have the privilege of being white and male. Secondly, Kit makes pretty good points: e.g. the one about theological ignorance, which is covered in the Appleyard article. He specifically pans Grayling for using false equivalence to protect the anti-theists from the charge of writing in a field they don’t understand. The logic being that if theism is a childish delusion like believing in Care Bears or biting chameleons, there is no need to engage with it on its own terms at all.

Where I disagree is with the implication that to the Horsemen specifically, rather than internet anti-theists generally, this is an insidious and ugly type of victim-claiming. Natalie Reed refers to it as one out of many civil rights issues: it is a civil rights issue, in Saudi Arabia or Malaysia, in Texas or Alabama or Louisiana, in Turkey or Egypt. But that’s not the war the anti-theist cavalry want, or the one they are waging. They only seem to care about that kind of civil rights when the misfortunes of poor, female or coloured people around the world provide cheap-shot ammunition for a CNN sound-bite.

Aggressive anti-theisism is, as both Kit and Natalie Reed observe, overwhelmingly white, European / Western, male, wealthy, and very highly educated. The academe, in English at least, treats ‘theology’ as the study, not of gods, or of the concept of deity, but of “our” God specifically. The Horsemen are on a revenge trip. Whatever they may think, claim and fulminate about, they’re not fighting against religion, or even the concept of deity. They’re fighting the Christian God, YHWH, who is also the Jewish God and the Muslim God. They’re battling his egregious servants in the Vatican and the Madrassas; they’re attacking the US televangelist snake-oil shills. They perceive European history as having been dominated by atrocity, oppression and torture solely because of the dominance of organised Christianity, and they’re wrong.

Christianity is only responsible for some of the atrocities, not all of them; one might argue for ‘most’, but I wouldn’t. The Horsemen are anti-theists, in my reading, with three main motivations:

1. They are genuinely appalled at the way the JCI religious behemoth permits spectacular abuses against human decency, and actively encourages those abuses wherever possible for the benefit of the clerical establishment. Think the Blood Libel of Norwich, or the paedophile priests scandal today, or the systmatic rapes of Egyptian women who protested in Tarir Square, or the stoning of nine-year old girls in Israel by men with curly sideburns. The Horsemen perceive themselves, by virtue of being white men, as inheritors of a legacy of horror and shame that is even greater (by its historical breadth and scale) than the shame of slavery in the US. Like US abolitionists and their descendents, they see fighting back as a moral duty, but along the way they conflate the monotheistic triad with all religion. Which is, to be frank, fucking stupid. Daoism, Zen, and Lakotah Nation religions bear no resemblence at all, theologically or historically, to the JCI triad. Virtually no other religions in the recorded history of the concept resemble the religions of the Book as a class. They are genuinely different, which is one reason they became so dominant.

2. The Horsemen have been educated in an academic establishment in which for a very high percentage of elite actors, intelligence == atheism. Cf. the Grayling book, the god delusion (or as some might call it, the god experience) is a pure superstition, or an actual deliberate fraud, depending on whether you’re looking at the laity or the priests. As academicians and journalists, they therefore perceive a duty to educate. The logical error is in conflating spiritual experience with organised religion. Neal Stephenson discussed this in Snow Crash; the fact that in time, smart people notice that 90% of what happens in the modern Christian Church is bullshit, means a lot of Western smart people are atheists. It doesn’t mean that the other 10% is bullshit, or that the only possible response to being smart is to be non-spiritual.

3. They genuinely, as far as I can tell, believe that virtually every human evil, from the oppression of women to global poverty to nuclear warfare to AIDS in Africa, would disappear tomorrow if no-one in the world was stupid enough to be religious. And irritatingly, there’s kernels of truth in that; a great deal of oppression of women is directly enforced by the JCI religions. AIDS in Africa is a massively greater problem than it would have been without Dubya’s attempt at Christian moralism. Pharaonic levels of wealth inequality are permitted, excused and actively enhanced by government policy because Christian puritans developed a moralistic attitude to wealth as God’s reward for virtue, and those Christian elites enjoy punishing the ‘undeserving’ poor. Nuclear warfare remains a major threat in large part because a hefty percentage of America and many other lunatics around the globe really believe that someone pressing the button would result in a good outcome for them personally: and they believe this because of their apocalyptic interpretations of Christianity and Islam.

The Horsemen are also blatantly wrong, in that if you took away organised JCI religion people would still find excuses to be assholes to each other.

The Horsemen view the struggle against organised religion, by which they largely if not exclusively mean Christianity and Islam, as one of the most significant battles around. They think (for good reasons, even if they’re in part wrong) that ending organised religion is how you fix more or less all of the other problems of mankind. They see the removal of the pernicious influence of YHWH (and, as collateral damage, all other spiritual paradigms) as a magic bullet. There are no magic bullets, anyone with a bare grasp of history should know that. To me, that kind of wishful thinking, with no empirical grounding at all, is much less intellectually rigorous than recognising that humans experience gnosis and that they need a language to engage with it.

Hopefully it is by now clear that I neither agree with the Horsemen, nor am I defending them as correct. They’re not; though I am prepared to admit that I would have much less problem with them if they were prepared to confine their indictments to the guilty parties. Specific religions have perpetrated two thousand years of savagery, colonialism, torture, child abuse, oppression and cruelty, but I would argue the Horsemen are unwise to extrapolate from that truth the case that all spiritual experience is fraudulent and evil.

Natalie Reed’s description of internet anti-theism is, I think, largely accurate. As such, it bears a remarkable resemblence to internet racism from the EDL, internet misogyny from UniLad, and GOP assaults on reproductive freedom from the hysterical religious right. But I strongly disagree that the Horsemen themselves are fighting out of an attempt to acquire victim status. They’re fighting because, misguided or not, they are at heart Manicheans; they genuinely seem to believe that the entity Jews, Christians and Muslims worship as ‘God’ is the root of all evil.

The Five Horsemen

There’s a very good Staggers article by Brian Appleyard reviewing A. C. Grayling’s recent book. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the review, but there are several nice points, one of which I want to look at further.

The Four Horsemen of the Secular ApocalypseContinuing the on-going theme of this blog as an exercise in reflexivity, I should note here that I may be an atheist, but that it’s very hard to tell. I subscribe to a neoPagan religious tradition, which places no requirement on the traveller to believe in deities; it can function as a theologically neutral life philosophy, along the lines of Daoism, or as a fully featured animist religion. My current position on theism is that for me personally, it’s too early to tell. I am not, however, agnostic; the language of neuroscience provides some pretty good models for how ecstatic spiritual experiences happen and mechanisms which can produce them, but from the point of view of the user they are still gnostic in the Neo-Platonist sense. That’s why Burning Man and LSD remain so popular in a secular society.

Appleyard identifies this book as Grayling’s application to join the “Four Horsemen of the Secular Apocalypse” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens Minor). He also finds a number of things to take issue with, following this summary of the work overall:

This is a lucid, informative and admirably accessible account of the atheist-secular- humanist position. […] the first half, which is in essence analytical, is much better than the second half, which is rather discursive and feels almost tract-like in its evocation of shiny, happy people having fun in a humanist paradise. Nevertheless, this is rhetorically justifiable to the extent that it is an attempt to answer the question necessarily posed by any attempt to eliminate religion – what would be put in its place? Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on. Grayling tells a humanist story in the belief that it is perfectly capable of answering all these needs.

Having accepted what the book does well, he then starts to pick up on the problems:

The broad point is that Grayling, like the other horsemen, goes too far. He narrowly defines religion as a system of physical beliefs and then says such a system has nothing to offer the world. When another atheist, Alain de Botton, gently suggested that non-believers might have something to learn from religion, he was immediately trampled on by the horsemen. But what religion has to offer is a great mountain of insights into the human realm. Belief, in this context, is beside the point. Reading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the Fire Sermon or the Sermon on the Mount will teach you more about the human condition than anything written by the horsemen.

When discussing the extraordinary political experiment which is the Union of American States, one simply cannot proceed without engaging with slavery, and with the genocide against the Native Americans. These great, gnawing cancers ate the heart and soul out of America’s idealism for two hundred and more years, and both live on in scars and wounds today. Equally, when discussing theism in English, what one is primarily actually talking about is the JCI religious triad; Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the impact those religions have had on our civilisation and the world. One cannot consider the beauty of the Hagia Sophia or the power of Tallis’ glorious polyphony without also considering the Crusades and the Inquisition: violence against women, eugenics, colonialism, the doctrine of eminent domain, and the War on Terror. Inevitably, the Five Horsemen attack one side of that equation, and the argument made by Appleyard presents the other.

What is much more interesting is this:

There is also an irritating and highly self-serving argument that appears in various forms throughout the book. This seems to be an attempt to delegitimise all religious discourse. “Atheism,” Grayling writes, “is to theism as not stamp-collecting is to stamp-collecting.” […] The word “atheist”, therefore, is misleading; the phrase “militant atheist” doubly so.

This is silly. First, “militant atheist” is a phrase that Grayling justifies by his talk of comrades and causes. If he really believes this argument, he shouldn’t have written this book. Second, this is a transparent ruse to get the four (or five) horsemen off the charge that they write about religion while knowing nothing of theology. If religion is treated as a child-like superstition – like the belief in fairies – then there is no need to understand it in detail.

Appleyard is right in paragraph two; Neal Stephenson addressed the same ground in Snow Crash when he has a character describe the Western canard that atheism is a sign of intelligence, nothing more. But in the first paragraph Appleyard comes very close to something rather more important. Grayling’s stamp-collecting metaphor is a good one, as it provides a way to think about the Horsemen and their philosophical ancestors from a new direction.

In this metaphor, a theist is a stamp-collector; an atheist is someone who collects no stamps. What do we call someone who wants stamp-collecting banned?

When I first framed this problem, I saw it as a difference between a-theism and anti-theism. The first is a non-stamp collector; “I do not believe in stamps.” The second would stamp out collecting; “You should not believe in stamps!” I really enjoyed the Humanist Bus campaign in London; based on reductionist evidence, gods probably don’t exist, and I am a passionate believer in free speech. My problem with Dawkins has always been that he uses a-theism, a very easily defendable position, to provide him with political cover for a completely different campaign, which is anti-theism. This is misdirection, political sleight-of-mind, and I don’t honestly see why he needs it.

Based on this review, Grayling is indeed riding out: Appleyard describes that same rhetorical sophistry at several points. I have no problem with the existance of anti-theists; the intellectual agora of the Internet era gets more robust with every added voice and viewpoint. I do have a problem with arrant intellectual dishonesty. If you are against gods, or (I suspect, in most cases) against a particular God, admit it. When you vote ‘No’, don’t tell the press you abstained. Dawkins and Hitchens Minor are quite openly anti-theist as well as atheist, and they should defend that; they both carry intellects of high calibre and have plenty of ammunition.

Say what now?

This is old, but it’s really funny, and I have a thing for Bobby Kennedy conspiracy theories. I’ve heard the one about the mind-control conspiracy (which is in Sirhan’s parole hearing strategy, among other places). I’ve heard about the guy holding his arm who said he couldn’t have shot Kennedy, and the bullet count theory, which claim a second gunman (neither adds up). But I’ve never heard this delightful piece of buffoonery from Rush Limbaugh shortly after the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords:

Mr. Kennedy, your uncle was shot by a communist, Lee Harvey Oswold. Your other uncle, Robert Kennedy, was shot by a militant Islamist, Sirhan Sirhan. In neither case, were your uncle’s assassins related to Sarah Palin in any way.

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Daily Trawl

Fair range of intersting things this morning.

1. Paul Krugman on the hysteria of austerity.
In this case the study is Italy / Eurozone but he also links to several of the important resources on IMF, multipliers, central bank strategies and so on.

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Red Pope

G. K. Chesterton once said, “The problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting. The problem with Christianity is that it has been found hard, and very rarely tried.” For me this neatly encapsulates the difference between theory (or theology) and practice in Christian politics. Andrew Sullivan [1] has a reaction to the first Papal resignation in some hundreds of years which is in many ways excellent:

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February 2017
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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith