Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Value in the Dressing Room

It being the lazy post-Christmas season I'll just have to write you a post about Cricket.  American readers might like to wait for something else to pop up, or else try this helpful explanation of the game, or perhaps this more detailed one

Many commentators have been calling for the heads of veteran batsmen Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, but both have been picked for the Boxing Day Test.  Australia's new Chairman of Selectors John Inverarity explains that both players provide "great value in the dressing room".

This is is obviously a good thing as both have been spending a lot of time there lately.  They are clearly needed in the team, because while these two experienced players are devoting themselves to the dressing room, some other players are letting the side down.

Of course the bowlers can't be blamed.  They routinely spend long hours with their mates, followed by a brief stint batting and a swift return to the bosom of the team.  This means you can be fairly relaxed about which bowlers you select, since they all provide pretty much the same dressing room value.  This policy particularly applies to spinners - you can practically pick any spinner you like.  However, there are exceptions.  Nathan Hauritz, for instance, provided great dressing room value early in his Test career.  However, the longer he stayed in the team the more inclination he showed to stay away from his mates, and eventually the selectors' patience ran out.

No, it's the batsmen you need to worry most about.  Some of the recent additions to the Test team have shown a worrying lack of dressing room form.  David Warner is a case in point.  Selectors had high hopes for him, with his reputation for quickfire batting stints followed by long dressing room contributions.  So far in Test cricket his performances in this regard have been adequate, but there have been some alarming lapses.  The warning signs were there in the second innings of the Brisbane Test, with his failure to return to the dressing room until right at the end of the game, but the second innings in Hobart must really have the selectors worrying.  Warner went out to bat at the very start of the innings and failed to return for more than five hours, only reluctantly dragging himself back to the room when the last of his batting partners refused to stay with him any longer.  No doubt his captain will have something to say about this.

Which leaves me wondering about the recent dropping of Phil Hughes.  Early in his carreer, Hughes appeared almost incapable of spending time in the dressing room.  In his first two tests, on tour in South Africa, he was absent for over 12 hours.  Little wonder he was dropped early in the following tour of England.  Nonetheless, his form in the current Australian summer has been a huge improvement, with less than two hours absence in the recent series against New Zealand.  His axing for the India Test is baffling to say the least, especially when his replacement, Ed Cowan, seemed determined to do everything in his power to avoid the dressing room in the first innings against India on Boxing Day.

Of course the strains of captaincy are taking their toll on Michael Clarke, with long absences in South Africa and again in Brisbane an obvious sign that he is taking some time to settle into the role.  This is why Ponting and especially Hussey are so important to the team.  Ponting's contributions have been slipping a little of late but he has been a consistent contributor over the past two years, and his performance in his home Test in Hobart was outstanding, with all but an hour spent in the company of his team.  However, with Ponting's recent form a little patchy and Clarke struggling, Hussey has to bear more of the load than he really should.  His performance in the New Zealand series was world class, with only 66 minutes in absentia across the two Tests.  The man they call Mr Cricket is a durable, determined performer but surely he can't be expected to bear this kind of load every game.  Some of the young players will need to start stepping up soon.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Happy Saturnalia

It being Christmas, I've been thinking about Saturnalia, of course, and this led me to remember a fascinating passage in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  Writing in 601 AD, Pope Gregory sends Abbot Mellitus to help out Augustine, the first Roman missionary to the Anglo-Saxons in Britain.  Among various instructions, he says this:

When, therefore, Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.

And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps.

Augustine and his helpers were not sent on a destructive mission.  They were not sent to wipe the slate clean of anything that had any relation to paganism and start all over.  The were not afraid of paganism, because they were confident that Christ would prevail over it.  They also understood that nothing was so universally human as the love of a good party.  Their parties and places of celebration were to be lovingly and gently Christianised, the good aspects kept and the evil or dangerous ones phased out.

This gentle, inclusive spirit surely also inhabited the Christian adoption of aspects of the Roman festival of Saturnalia into the Christmas celebration.  Saturnalia, the festival of the Roman harvest god Saturn, ran from December 17 to the winter solstice on December 23.  It was a celebration, a time of feasting and gift giving, a holiday in which there were both public and private feasts.  It was also a festival of misrule, in which masters served their slaves, children ruled their parents, and the festival was presided over by a Lord of Misrule whose absurd and chaotic commmands must be obeyed. 

The mid-winter date of Christmas is not a great match for the Gospel stories of Jesus' birth with their shepherds sleeping in the fields and Joseph and Mary travelling cross-country to Bethlehem.  Yet what could be more Christian than an upside down festival like Saturnalia?  How better to celebrate the birth of a king who entered his city on a donkey and died for his people, who took little children on his knee, healed lepers, touched bleeding women, befriended Samaritans and gave it to the chief priests and leaders of Israel with both barrels? 

Wouldn't it be great if we had our own Saturnalia.  We could go and sleep in tents and demountable huts while homeless people and refugees occupied our homes.  We could wait on the tables of the starving.  Our politicians could answer their own phones and open their own letters while their admin staff made decisions of state.  It would be thrilling and dangerous.  Some of the decisions of our misrulers might turn out to be better than those of our regular rulers.  Perhaps we might even make it permanent.

Happy Saturnalia everyone!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

More Lives of Jesus 5: The Twin Deception

When I reviewed Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ earlier this year, I made the mistake of assuming he had invented the idea of Jesus' twin brother.  I was wrong.  The idea has ancient roots, and as well as featuring in Pullman's book is the central feature of an exceedingly odd book, The Twin Deception, by Tony Bushby, published by the small independent Queensland publisher Joshua Books in 2006.

Bushby is a prolific writer of Christian pseudo-history with at least six similar volumes to his name.  There is a lot of familiar stuff here, including hidden messages, concealed identities and Catholic cover-ups, but Bushby takes the art-form to a whole new level.

I don't mean his writing.  His grammar is questionable, his prose convoluted and his telling of his story is so incoherent as to be almost incomprehensible.  Nonetheless, the extent of his reworking of the tale is beyond anything attempted by the likes of Barbara Theiring, Stephan Huller or even the redoubtable Michael Biagent. 

In summary his story is this.  Jesus had a twin brother, Judas Thomas.  These two boys were the children of the Jewish serving woman Mary and the Roman Emperor Tiberius.  Judas, the elder of the brothers, became the leader of the Essenes, a militant Jewish sect, before travelling to Rome to attempt to take his father's throne by force.  There he was arrested and sentenced to crucifixion, but escaped by switching places with Simon of Cyrene.  As a result he lost his freedom, was sold into slavery by his brother Jesus and ended his life in India.

Meanwhile Jesus was initiated into the mysteries of Osiris in Egypt, inherited his brother's position as head of the Essenes but fell out with them because he attempted to reveal their secrets to the common people.  This led to a journey to Britain where he spread his secret to the British Jews before finally being stoned to death in London.

This will of course leave you wondering how the story came to be told as it is in our bibles and of course Bushby has the answer.  Christianity as we know it was invented at the Council of Nicea, called by the Emperor Constantine, a descendant of Jesus.  This was not, as we have been led to believe, a gathering of Christian bishops (there being no such thing at the time) but a gathering of the teachers of a wide range of religions current in the Empire at that time.  Constantine was worried at the divisiveness of multiple religions and wanted to decide on a single faith to unite his empire.  In the end the Council, at Constantine's urging, decided to create a new religion, based around the persons of Constantine's ancestor Jesus and his brother Judas, which combined elements of the cults of Caesar, Krishna, Mithra, Horus and Zeus.  Bishop Eusebius was given the job of creating scriptures to support this religion and the New Testament was the result.

Of course the "true knowledge" of the existence of the twins and the fictitious nature of the Gospels was not completely suppressed.  It was known to the Catholic heirarchy, preserved by the initiates of various secret societies, leaked out in the works of the Renaissance masters and had to be suppressed again with a complete rewriting of the New Testament in the late 15th century. 

It's useful at this point to keep in mind Michael Shermer's criterion for assessing conspiracy theories - the likelihood of a conspiracy theory being true is inversely proportional to the number of people who would have to be involved. The cover-up described by Bushby involves literally millions of people over almost seventeen centuries. Surely someone would have had an attack of consience and released the true story by now?

What evidence does Bushby have for these astonishing claims?  It's difficult to tell.  Most of his sources predate the 20th century.  He cites a number of obscure and out-of-print 18th and 19th century historians, and has a love for 19th century editions of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and Catholic Encyclopedia, from which he quotes (or perhaps misquotes) extensively.  This means, of course, that most of his sources can't be verified.

Where they can, the result is not encouraging.  Virtually every time he cites the New Testament he either misquotes it or distorts its meaning.  A classic example is his brief section on "the biblical evidence of Jesus' twin".  He cites the parallel passages in Mark 6 and Matthew 13 which refer to Jesus' brothers, who include "Judas called Thomas", and relates these to the references to the apostle Thomas "the twin" in John's gospel.  The problem is that the Mark and Matthew passages don't mention "Judas called Thomas", merely "Judas" or "Jude", and there is no suggestion that he is Jesus' twin.  Hence the connection with Thomas in John is completely spurious.

Other sources that I could easily check showed the same pattern.  He cites the story of the conflict over Easter in Britain in the 6th century as evidence that the original British church did not celebrate Easter.  Yet the original of this story in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (which Bushby appears to have only read at second hand) makes it clear that both sides of the dispute celebrated Easter and the source of the conflict was the method of calculating the correct date. 

Bushby even goes so far as to cite Geoffrey of Monmouth's fantastical History of the Kings of Britain as if it were a real work of history.  Even then he misquotes it, confusing a passage about the imaginary king Cymbeline, "a powerful warrior whom Augustus Caesar had reared in his household and equipped with weapons" and the following paragraph, "In those days was born our Lord Jesus...", as evidence that Augustus armed Jesus and sent him to Britain.  If this small sample is any indication, none of his citations can be trusted.

He even struggles to get his own story straight.  The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion are described both as inaccurate retellings of Judas Thomas' supposed crucifixion in Rome, and veiled accounts of Jesus' initiation into the Egyptian mysteries.  Jesus is both the son of Tiberius, and armed and dispatched by Augustus.  The Gospels were invented by Eusebius in the 4th century, then again by the church authorities in the 15th.  Bushby is able to both have and eat multiple servings of cake.

So why did I bother with this tedious, badly written nonsense?  And why am I boring you with it?  I have to admit I wondered that myself as I skimmed the latter part of the book searching in vain for something that made sense.

The answer is that these retellings have cultural resonance for 21st century Western readers.  While Bushby is a little too out there even for Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code used the various common pseudo-historical tricks to turn a second-rate detective novel into a publishing phenomenon.  The religion sections of secular bookstores contain as many works of pseudo-history as they do collections of the Dalai Lama's sayings.  Even Bushby's extreme left-field ideas found an echo in Pullman's decidedly more mainstream treatment of the subject.  Why is this stuff so popular?

Partly, of course, it's fashionable to take pot-shots at the church as Western society grows into its own increasing secularism.  However, these stories also provide the same fascination as a well constructed science fiction or fantasy world.  The boring, hum-drum, incompetent society in which we live conceals another, far more exciting reality in which super-competent, malevolent rulers conspire to deceive ordinary people for their own gain.  The suggestion of historicity in these claims, however flimsy, just adds to the excitement and the thrill of horror.

It's all nonsense, but perhaps there's an upside.  With a bit of luck, Tony Bushby may get to have twice as much fun at Christmas as the rest of us!

Friday, 16 December 2011

Answer on Asylum Seekers

Back in September I wrote to Julia Gillard, Immigration Minister Chris Evans and my local member to express the view that both offshore processing and immigration detention should be abandoned and asylum seekers allowed to live in the community.  Not long after, the High Court ruled that offshore processing is illegal and the Gillard government accidentially arrived at a policy somewhat similar to my suggestions.

Finally, I have a reply to my letter to Chris Bowen from Kate Falvey, Director of Protection Policy in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  Some of the things she says are as follows.

You will be pleased to know that on 18 October 2010, the Government announced that it would move the majority of children, and a significant number of vulnerable families, into the community by the end of June 2011, by expanding the community detention program.  This commitment was met.

As at 21 November 2011, the Minister had approved 2382 clients (1266 adults and 1116 children) for accommodating in the community detention program since October 2010.  Of these, 1292 clients (774 adults and 518 children) are residing in the community under these arrangements.  Around 1000 clients have left the program after being granted protection visas.

On 25 November 2011, the Hon Chris Bowen MP, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, announced a new approach to the management of asylum seekers.  Following an initial mandatory detention period for health, security and identity checks, eligible boat arrivals who do not pose risks to the community will be progressively considered for community placement on bridging visas while their asylum claims are assessed.

Asylum seekers on bridging visas will have the right to work and support themselves, and will also have access to necessary health services.  Some will also be eligible for support services through the existing Department of Immigration and Citizenship funded programs such as the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme and the Community Assistance Support Program, which will be determined on a case by case basis.

Astute readers will note the weasel words in this letter - the "majority" of children, a "significant number" of "vulnerable" families (presumably some families are invulnerable), "eligible" boat arrivals will be "progressively considered" for community placement, and "some" will be eligible for support services.  This is a cautious bureaucratic document which leaves a lot of wriggle room.

Nonetheless it's a move in the right direction.  Community detention represents a sort of half-way house, much like parole in the prison system.  The Immigration Fact Sheet on the program says:

Community detention enables people to reside in the community without needing to be escorted. These arrangements do not give a person any lawful status in Australia (for example, no visa is granted at this stage), nor does it give them the rights and entitlements of a person living in the community on a visa (for example, the right to study or work). The person remains administratively in immigration detention while living in the community....Conditions include a mandatory requirement to report regularly to the department and/or their service provider, and reside at the address specified by the minister.

This is problematic because they still remain in limbo, with no way to support themselves and limited opportunity to engage in meaningful activity.  However, at least they have basic freedom of movement and a home environment rather than a traumatic institutional one.

The bridging visa option is a further improvement.  People are allowed to start establishing their lives, to work and become independent.  However, it does provide less security for people - they have to jump through the hoops to be approved for discretionary assistance programs run by the Red Cross (see the fact sheets here and here) and you can be sure many will slip between the cracks.

The letter doesn't mention the High Court decision but it is clear the court has set the cat among the pigeons.  Policy is moving fast, cautious public servants are having to think on their feet, and there is an opportunity for those who are looking for humane solutions to get ahead of those who see only danger.  I'd still like to see more generosity, but at last after years of the zero sum game of detention we seem to be moving in a more generous direction.  May we keep moving forward!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Art of Persuasion

Still ploughing through my rapidly diminishing pile of periodicals.  Right now I'm reading Zadok Perspectives No 112, Spring 2011, and it includes a lovely lucid article by John Dickson, director of the Centre for Public Christianity and one of Australia's foremost Christian apologists, reprinted from the Sydney Morning Herald

Dickson is talking about the very same thing as Michael Shermer, confirmation bias or as Dickson calls it, the "Backfire Effect".  We readily believe evidence which supports our pre-existing views, while contrary evidence not only fails to convince us, it often "backfires" and strengthens our erroneous opinions.

His point is the same as Shermer's - that our beliefs are so rarely dictated by the evidence, and instead we read the evidence with beliefs in hand.  This effect applies equally to Christians and atheists, the those on the left and the right, to those who refuse to see the evidence that there is a real physiological basis for sexual orientation and those who refuse to accept the empirical evidence that Christian belief really does make you a better person.

What hope is there for us, if we are so intractably unreasonable?  Dickson turns to Aristotle's On Rhetoric for an explanation.  Aristotle identified three controlling factors for persuasion.  The first, logos, is about evidence and reason.  According to Aristotle we all like to believe that we believe on the basis of logos, but this is rarely the whole story.  Two other factors are also in play.  Pathos is our emotional reaction to an idea or proposition.  We are more likely to believe an idea or assertion we find pleasant or fitting, less likely to believe one we find repugnant.  The final factor is ethos, the social or ethical dimension to belief.  We accept the ideas of people we like and trust, disbelieve those we dislike or distrust, irrespective of the strength of their evidence. 

What counts in debate is a combination of intellectual, aesthetic and social factors. I find it interesting that Christian believers will very often admit that their convictions emerged in this threefold way; that their faith rests on the holistic basis of logos, pathos and ethos. For Christianity, indeed, satisfies all three dimensions of our existence. But what is especially interesting to me as I reflect on Aristotle and the research on the ''backfire effect'' is the way sceptics rarely admit that their scepticism rests on the same combination of reasons.

Typically, my atheist mates have protested that, for them, it is entirely a matter of evidence. "If there were more proof," they say, "I would readily believe." I don't believe them for a moment.
Yes, evidence is important, but it is not the only factor. I have spoken to too many atheists over the years who start out with a "proof" line of argument only to eventually admit that their reasons for rejecting religion have equally to do with some painful event in the past that called into question God's existence or some ugly encounter with a religious hypocrite that caused them to distrust religious claims. Personal and social factors prove as important as intellectual factors in the formation of belief and unbelief, whether on religious, ethical, political or social matters.

Whether on climate change, politics, religion or ethics, we do not change our minds on the basis of facts alone. Indeed, they may even bolster contrary views. What environmental campaigners, refugee advocates, gay rights lobbyists, atheist evangelists and churches need if they are to be persuasive are not just more facts but a narrative that stirs our hearts and a social movement that wins our trust.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Development Projects Shot Down

Amongst the huge backlog of periodicals I am currently skimming my way through is an issue of Target, the quarterly magazine of aid agency TEAR Australia, which celebrates 40 years of TEAR's operation.  We've been supporting TEAR for almost 30 of those 40 years, signing up as soon as we had an income in 1983.  I love the way TEAR has always focused on working with people and local agencies, and held to its dual role of supporting and empowering people in the third world where the problems are experienced, and working for change in the first world where most of them are caused.

Deborah Storie's editorial provides food for thought.

We have a lot to celebrate!  Yet over recent decades, if conversations linger and range broadly enough, a darker shadow story is also told.  Despite all their achievements, people testify that their lives are harder and more precarious, or that they are worried about the future.  Why?  Common themes across countries and regions emerge.  People speak of losing access to natural resources: land, forests and water.  They say the weather is changing, rainfall is less reliable, harvests are disappointing and severe weather events are more frequent....  People speak of fear and of violence, of conscription and coercion, of looting, rape and death, of soldiers, police and militia, of guns.  Conflict and militarisation are increasing.

I wondered: are they?  Or is this just people's impression, current problems looming larger than past ones?  I remember quite vividly a project from my early days as a TEAR supporter.  They had a system where you could follow a particular project closely, getting regular updates on progress and analysis of results.  We followed a project called Vision Terudo in Uganda.  It was a classic and very effective community development project, run by a church-based regional organisation in Uganda employing local people, doing a variety of community development projects focused on things like health, food security, reforestation, and capacity building.  Results were good, people's lives were clearly improved. 

However, it didn't provide the warm assurance of progress we had been hoping and praying for, because after we had followed for a while the whole thing was wiped out in one night of violence with the onset of civil war.  Participants were killed, crops destroyed, livestock stolen, staff had to flee for their lives.  It certainly gave us an education in the precariousness of life in Uganda, but it was hard not to give up in despair.

Is it any worse now?  Has militarisation and violence really increased?  I asked Google, and it led me to the website of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and the revealing graph below showing military spending, in 2009 US dollar values, from 1988 to 2010. 

So the short answer is "yes", but the long answer is both more interesting and more depressing.  From the end of the 1980s, with the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War, global military spending declined substantially, from over $1.4 trillion US in 1988 to just over $962b in 1998.  Remember the "Peace Dividend"?  Yet since then, the trend has been all upwards as the potent combination of militant Islam and concern over control of the world's diminishing oil reserves has raised the global temperature.   By 2008 spending was back at its 1988 level and it has kept growing.

Of course the USA is the main culprit here by a huge margin, accounting for almost half of global arms spending and more than half the increase since 1998.  However, the rest of us are also in on the act.  Only Central and Western Europe have shown no significant increase since 1998.  Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania (in which Australia is the dominant power) and the Middle East have all shown increases of between one third and half in real terms since 1998.

No wonder we are fearful for the future.  Our looming ecological crisis means the need to work together is more urgent than ever.  We need global trust and cooperation to manage the transition to low carbon economies and renewable energy, and to halt the destruction of ecosystems and natural resources.  Yet we are busy tooling up for more war, eyeing each other across increasingly tense borders.  Can we pull back from this rearmament, or will we solve our ecological arguments through war and conquest?

Friday, 2 December 2011

How Not to Sell the Carbon Tax

The Australian Senate passed the final version of the "Clean Energy Future" bill (in other words, the Carbon Tax) on 8 November, amidst much fanfare and no small amount of criticism.  This means that assuming Tony Abbott is just posturing when he says a Coalition government would repeal it, from June next year it will cost money to release carbon into the atmosphere.  $23 per tonne, at least at the beginning.

This is not a popular measure.  Over the past few years support for a carbon price and carbon trading has eroded.  Big polluters have sowed seeds of doubt, funding visits and lecture tours by climate change deniers like Lord Monckton and mounting scare campaigns about the damage to our economy.

Meanwhile, I've been going through the pile of periodicals and occasional publications that has been growing in my in-tray for the past eight months.  One of the little gems I found was a Commonwealth Government publication called What a carbon price means for you: the pathway to a clean energy future.  It was put out a few months ago, when the legislation was first introduced to Parliament, and it is the major promotional document for the package. 

It would have to be the oddest piece of marketing I have ever seen.  The summary page lists four key points.

9 in 10 households will receive some combination of tax cuts and increased payments to help with the cost of living impact of the carbon price.

Over 1 milion extra Australians will no longer need to lodge a tax return.

Almost 6 million households will be assisted to meet their average price impact.

Over 4 million households will get assistance that is at least 20 percent more than their average price impact.

What's missing from this summary?  Oh yes, that's right, that whole climate change thing.  Damn, we forgot all about that!

The rest is not much better.  Three of the twenty pages are devoted to talking about reducing carbon pollution.  On none of these pages is there any explanation of how a carbon tax will help with this.  Instead there are generalities about how important it is to reduce carbon pollution, and assurances about the effectiveness of the tax.  "Trust us," they seem to imply, "we know what we're doing."

After this brief non-explanation about what the policy is actually about, the next ten pages are devoted to spelling out how Australian households will be compensated for the price increases caused by the tax.  There are precise details of the amount of cost increases we can expect to see, and the amount of tax cuts, pension increases and other such baubles ordinary Australians will receive to help pay for them.  Everyone is covered - workers, students, low income earners, pensioners, people with disabilities.  No stone is left unturned to reassure us that we will not be worse off.

Why am I not convinced?  Why, with such a wealth of detail, is the Australian public as a whole not convinced? 

Well, we have before us a classic example of poor communication.  The good thing about a carbon tax is that it provides a financial incentive for businesses, particularly power generators and large scale users of energy, to cut their emissions and move to low- or no-emission technologies.  They pay for every tonne of carbon they emit.  Renewables suddenly have a huge head start if only they can make their technology efficient enough to compete.  Emissions reduction technologies have a tangible financial benefit.  Offsetting measures suddenly make a lot more economic sense.  The carbon tax speaks to polluters in the language of capitalism, saying "reduce your emissions, and you will make more money".  It is an ambitious attempt to move capitalism towards sustainability.

Yet this core message, this basic rationale for the policy, does not appear anywhere in the marketing.  All that appears is the downside.  This will cost you money, it says.  Don't worry, it won't be as much as you think, and we'll make it up to you.  But of course if you have to spend 10 pages explaining how people will be compensated, the message which underlies those ten pages is that this is a destructive policy.  Why do it, if people need this much compensation? 

It suggests the government has no faith in its own policy.  It has no confidence in the vision and imperative to tackle pollution and climate change, or in the effectiveness of its chosen strategy.  The carbon tax may be a necessary evil, but nonetheless it is evil.  So we need to reduce the evil as much as we can.  The deniers, be they in the business community or the Opposition, have got into the government's head, and made them afraid of their own policy.  If they are afraid, why should we not be?

Friday, 25 November 2011

Dunning and Kruger

Many of you will already have heard of the "Dunning and Kruger Effect", a piece of psychological research which has made its way into the popular consciousness.  In summary it suggests that those who are more incompetent at a particular task are also more likely to overrate their competence, since their ignorance prevents them from realising just how bad they are.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading the article, "Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessments", by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, Vol 77, No 6.  Much of it is not scintillating reading, being after all an academic research paper filled with statistical jargon.  However, it is more comprehensible than many similar articles and shot through with flashes of psychologist humour.

The paper reports a series of four linked studies.  All were carried out on undergraduate psychology students, coerced or bribed into being experimental subjects as they are the world over.  Psychology is the study of first year psychology students.  In each experiment, the students were asked to perform a test - one on assessing the quality of jokes, one on grammar, and two using tests of logical reasoning.  In each case they were asked to rate their own performance in relation to their peers, and where it was possible to estimate their own score.  The result - the students who scored the lowest were the ones who most overestimated their ability.  Those who did best, on the other hand, tended to underestimate their scores.

In a follow-up, students who did either very well or very poorly were asked to come back a couple of weeks later and assess a sample of the work of their peers, being handed a set of papers of varying standard.  After marking these papers as best they could, students were asked again how they thought they had gone compared to everyone else.  The least competent showed no change - they still thought they had gone really well because, of course, they didn't know enough to make a proper assessment of the papers they had been asked to examine.  The most competent, on the other hand, revised their assessment of their skills upwards - because they realised they had done a lot better than most of the tests they had marked.

The third activity involved training people, then asking them to reassess.  Prior to rating some of their peers' performance on a logic test, some of the poorest performing students were given a short education module on logical processes.  Unsurprisingly, after this brief presentation, they were much more realistic about their own performance, because they now understood a little more about the subject.

When you think about it, none of this should be a surprise.  Some people don't know enough to be aware of their own ignorance, and pronounce confidently on subjects about which they know absolutely nothing.  Often such people end up running whole countries.  A little exposure to the discipline in question, whether it be logic or grammar or the relative funniness of jokes, makes us aware of the yawning gaps in our knowledge and we suddenly become more circumspect.  Someone, however, has to be game to point out our ignorance.  This is usually easier for people to  do before you become Prime Minister - say, perhaps, when you're a first year psychology student who hasn't yet grasped the basics of grammar and logical thinking.  What to they teach them in those schools?

The conclusion to Kruger and Dunning's article is a classic, worth reading to the end for.

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish.  That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.

Yes folks.  Kruger and Dunning fear that they may have
painted a fake.  Join the club, boys.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Faith and Doubt

To make sure I don't just get trapped in a single viewpoint, I've been reading John Ortberg's Faith and Doubt.  Ortberg is an American Presbyterian pastor and also coincidentally a former clinical psychologist.  His overall outlook seems to be basically orthodox, conservative Protestantism but he is not really in the "fundamentalist" camp in that he is not a believer in the literal seven day creation, nor in premillenialism. 

He has written this book to deal with the question of doubt.  Why do Christians doubt, what should they do about it, and how does doubt relate to faith?  He deals with the issue in a chatty, anecdotal style, keeping it light and easy and leaping from story to story, topic to topic, with the agility of a grasshopper.  Although he doesn't say so, I suspect that the material in this book started out as a set of sermons, and it still sounds like something meant to be spoken, peppered with jokes that are often quite funny but also distracting and at times beside the point.  You can hear the congregation laughing, relieving the tension on what could otherwise be a rather stressful subject.

To my mind, he takes a while to get to the point, beginning with an outline of what he believes is important in the Christian faith and why it attracts him.  It's not until over half way through the book that he starts to get to grips with doubt.  He does so by summarising what he sees as the three main reasons for doubt.  The first is intellectual - why is there not more evidence for God?  Why does he not show himself clearly, if it is so important that we believe in him?  The second is moral - why are God's followers not better people?  Many former believers, or potential believers, are driven away by the poor behaviour of God's people and the church institution.  Then the third is the classic question of theodicy - why does a loving God allow so much suffering?  Although he discusses all three, it seems to be the last which affects him most personally and to which he returns a number of times. 

So what should we do when we doubt?  First of all, he makes it very clear that he doesn't think doubt is a bad thing.  In fact he sees it as essential and inevitable.  Doubt helps us to learn and grow (since it drives us to seek the truth) it makes us humble, and it drives us to trust.  He urges his readers to cultivate the gift of doubt.  However, he wants to keep this doubt within limits.  He urges us to avoid the traps of skepticism, which he sees as persistent failure to decide (Michael Shermer would certainly disagree with this definition!) and a negative force typified by the apostle Thomas; of cynicism, a constantly negative attitude driven by fear of loss; and of rebellion, a deliberately oppositional attitude to everything.  I found this part of the book perplexing, and his dismissals of these viewpoints a little too glib.

However, the weakest point of this book was its apologetic framework.  He identifies a number reasons to believe, but in the end they amount to variations on the same theme - our sense that the universe has meaning, that there is a standard of right and wrong, that individuals have significance, are sure pointers that there is a god.  His reasons for belief are heavily intuitive and emotional.  He believes because he feels things make sense.  Shermer would have a field day. 

The ease with which he slips into these arguments makes me wonder just how seriously he has doubted himself. His doubts seem to just scratch the surface, mere ripples on the still silent pool of his belief.  Because if his arguments are at all convincing (and I don't find them very strong myself) they only lead you to a general theism.  It is a long step from there to Christianity in any form, and an even longer one to Christian orthodoxy.  The rest he asks us to take on trust, like a trapeze artist letting go of the swing and relying on the catcher to arrest our fall at the right time.  For him the catcher is God, and Jesus points unambiguously to this God and gives us courage to believe.  He would get a big surprise if he looked up and found Brahma on the end of the trapeze, or perhaps the trickster Anansi pretending to drop him before snatching him by the hair at the last minute and laughing uproariously.

In a sense he's right about this.  Our belief is a choice, it is a free act in a universe which is not so determined that we have no options.  We choose to believe every day, relying on our trust in those around us or our intuition, on matters as mundane as whether it is safe to eat our dinner or as momentous as the guiding principles of our life.  Yet it is not a binary choice.  At each point, and on each issue, we need to choose over and over again.  And we have at least three choices, not two.  We can say "Yes, I believe, despite my doubts".  We can say "no, I don't believe that".  Or we can say "I'm just not sure, we'll have to wait and see".

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Once and Future Bible

Courtesy of my friend Kay I've been reading a book by Gregory Jenks called The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives.  Jenks is Academic Dean of St Francis Theological College, the Anglican seminary here in Brisbane.  He is also strongly connected with the "progressive" Christian movement in the USA as a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar and a friend of the radical former Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong, to whom he refers as a kind of mentor.

Despite his association with Spong, Jenks is very much his own person.  Spong's comparable book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, is combative and quixotic, leaping unpredictably between mainstream scholarship like the source theory of the Gospels, and fringe ideas like the notion of the Apostle Paul as a repressed gay man.  By contrast, Jenks is calm and sober, providing a concise lay person's summary of what he sees as the current state of Biblical scholarship.  Yet he identifies very closely with what Spong calls "believers in exile" - those people (in the church or outside it) who retain a Christian faith but no longer feel at home in the church and within the framework of traditional belief.  These people are his intended audience.

A lot of what he says is not particularly contentious.  His book follows the basic outlines of the Old and New Testaments, summarising what bible scholars see as their likely dating and process of composition, and its relationship to history.  Certainly, he is "progressive".  This means that when he has an alternative between a traditional interpretation and a more radical one, he generally chooses the more radical.  Where there is a choice between an earlier and later date of composition, he usually chooses the later.  However, he does so within a framework of scholarship, acknowledging alternative views and avoiding fringe or speculative theories.  Lots of people will disagree with his conclusions but you would have to be a little oversensitive to find them offensive or provocative.

The most interesting parts of the book are the third chapter and the final one.  In the third, after setting the scene by explaining why many people find the Bible problematic, he outlines a threefold framework for studying it.  The first is to understand the world behind the text - that is, the historical circumstances of its composition, the likely identity of its authors and their purpose, its place in the historical context that it describes and in which is was created.  This is largely the work of the various disciplines of biblical criticism and history - source criticism and archaeology, for example.

The second is to understand the world of the text - that is, what it is actually saying.  What is it saying about the nature of humans, God, history and so on?  This is the work of Biblical exegesis, and raises plenty of problems for him and other progressive Christians as well as more traditional believers.  How do you account, for instance, for the prevalence of what he calls "sacred violence" - the urgings to war and genocide found in so many places in the Old Testament, the idea of eternal condemnation of sinners found in parts of the New?  How do you account for the subjugation of women, and the toleration of slavery?  These are real problems which have driven many people from Bible, as you can see from a quick read of Sam Harris or Michel Onfray.

The final aspect of his approach is to understand the world before the Bible - that is, the world of the reader, the questions to which the reader is seeking answers.  What will a feminist, an environmentalist, or a person from a particular theological background, make of any particular text?  Because Jenks sees the Bible as a sacred text but not an infallible one, he is quite comfortable with the idea that someone might create a variant reading of a text, or offer a critique of it from a modern perspective, so that the Bible becomes part of a dialogue about how we should live now, rather than providing the final word.

Which brings us to his final chapter and what appears to me to be the crux of this whole book.  If we take his view of Scripture (and on the whole, it seems close enough to the mark) and see it is a faithful but fallible human witness to God, how should we use it, and what kind of faith will result?  His answer is tantalisingly brief, covering no more than a few pages.  I wish he had gone into more detail.  What he says is that we will read the bible with our eyes wide open.  We will be fully aware of its history and the way it was composed, rather than reading with the illusion of divine infallibility or complete harmony.  We will also bring to it our knowledge from other fields - our learnings from other spiritual traditions, from science and history, from our engagement with the issues of the day.  We will not so much be looking to the Bible to answer all our questionsas as making it part of them.

He sees the Bible as giving us four things - an openness to the sacred, a world-affirming attitude to life, a vision of inclusive community and a passion for justice and reconciliation.  There is no compulsion in his view of this, nothing to say you must read it.  Nonetheless, he and his fellow Christian progressives, and others of us too, come from a Christian background.  This background provides us with a rich history and tradition, the wisdom of ages from which we can draw to help us deal with the pressing issues of our day.  This won't be enough for some of my readers, I know.  For others it will be too much.  He walks the fine line between the fundamentalisms of Christianity and atheism, and tries to live in the tension between them.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

James and Paul

Here's a little something that Crossan and Reed's Excavating Jesus has got me thinking about.  They open their book with a discussion of an artefact called the "James Ossuary" - a bone box inscribed with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus".  Their analysis of this relic, sold in the antiquities market with no indication of its origin, is fascinating.  Apparently even if the inscription is genuine there is only a one in 20 chance it actually contains the bones of James, the brother of Jesus Christ as worshipped by Christians.  All three names were incredibly common in first century Palestine.

Be that as it may, it leads them into a reflection on the role of James in the early church, and the origin of Christianity as a Jewish reform movement.  Here is my version of it, inspired by theirs but a little different.

James the brother of Jesus (as opposed to James the son of Zebedee, brother of John) is only mentioned once by name in the gospels, a passing reference in Matthew 13:55.  The context is Jesus' visit to his home town of Nazareth, where the locals apparently express the contempt of familiarity.  “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?"  An earlier story in Matthew 12 appears to suggest Jesus is just as dismissive of his family.

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”  48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Be that as it may, James appears to have played a prominent role in the early church, of which we only catch a glimpse in the New Testament through the story recorded in Acts 15 and its alternative telling by Paul in Galatians 2.  The context for this story is the early success of Paul's mission to the Gentiles.  Prior to this mission the church had been almost exclusively Jewish.  How should these Gentile converts be integrated into the Christian community?

Some (identified as Pharisees in Acts) believed they should become fully Jewish.  They should be circumcised and required to submit fully to the law of Moses.  They saw Christianity as a movement within Judaism.  Paul, of course, saw things differently, and was commissioned by his church at Antioch - the first mixed church - to take the question to the apostles in Jerusalem. 

What happened there is something of a surprise.  Throughout the early chapters of Acts, Peter is portrayed as the leader and spokesperson of the apostles in Jerusalem.  He plays a prominent role here too, alluding to his earlier call from God to preach the gospel to the Roman Centurion Corneleius and using this to argue that God accepted Gentiles without any expectation they would follow the law.  However it is James, making his first and only appearance in Acts, who appears firmly in charge and who finally rules on the question.  Luke is silent on this change.  Why is James, and not Peter, chairing this meeting?  And from where does he get the authority to deliver the final ruling?

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

This is clearly a compromise. They are not asked to take on the whole Jewish law, but an abbreviated version which includes food laws and sexual morality.

Paul's account in Galatians 2 contains no hint of this compromise.

6 As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message....They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

He then goes on to record a sequel in which Peter comes to Antioch.

12 ... before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy....

Paul's answer is unequivocal as he publicly rebukes Peter.

21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

What's going on here?  Three aspects of the law are under discussion - circumcision, food laws and sexual morality.  There seem to be at least four basic positions on this set of issues in the early church.  There is the position of the "pharisees" who believe Gentile Christians should submit to the whole Jewish law, including circumcision.  At the other extreme, although not mentioned in either of these accounts, there appear to be those who believe that none of these laws apply.

Both James and Paul occupy middle positions.  In their writings, both argue against the idea that morality can be dispensed with altogether - James in his sole letter preserved in the New Testament, Paul for example in Romans 6.  Both also agree that laws about sexual morality should apply to Gentile Christians.  What they disagree about is food laws, and even here their disagreement does not appear, in one sense, to be that great.  Paul does not believe in food laws himself, but in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10 he asks his followers to be considerate of one another in these matters.

Yet behind these details there seems to be something more fundamental which arouses Paul's passions.  Despite the nuance of his position in other places, his stance in Galatians is very black and white.  The "men who came from James" seem to be equated with the "circumcision group", so that Paul seems to understand James's position as advocating circumcision, contrary to Luke's account.  A further implication is that circumcised believers - full Jews, whether by birth or conversion - needed to maintain their purity by seperating themselves from Gentile believers, particularly at meal times which were such important communal events in the early church.  The result is a divided community - a Jewish church, and a Gentile one.  This seems to be what has raised Paul's ire.  His vision is for a united church, as shown in Ephesians 2.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

Crossan and Reed speculate that we are seeing a divide between two churches - an essentially Jewish church based in Jerusalem and led by James; and a mixed church led by Paul and others, made up of Jewish and Gentile converts from outside Judea.  Peter seems to have moved between these two churches, although not without some difficulties as shown in Galatians. 

Although the relationship between the two was obviously a little uneasy they seem to have been able to co-exist, and later in Acts we see Paul making efforts to keep the lines of communication open, visiting Jerusalem and going through certain Jewish rites despite the danger to himself. 

However, the Jewish war of 66-73 CE, as well as putting an end to Jewish temple worship, killed off the Jerusalem Jewish church and limited James' influence on subsequent Christianity.  From here on, Paul's model of church prevailed.  Converted Jews became indistinguishable from converted Gentiles and in time Jews came to be seen not as partners of the church but as its enemies.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Decisive Moment

So Roo said to me that after reading Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain I should read Jonah Lehrer's The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind.  I always aim to please and I did enjoy Shermer.

Lehrer is one of those annoying people who seem good at lots of things.  He has a degree in neuroscience, studied literature and theology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and writes for a number of different publications.  Where Shermer is a scientist who writes, Lehrer appears to be a writer who does science.  He is less technical than Shermer, more journalistic and accessible.

The Decisive Moment (apparently marketed in some countries as How We Decide) covers a lot of the same territory as The Believing Brain, including reporting many of the same experiments.  However, Lehrer asks a different question to Shermer and so of course he gets a different answer.  Shermer is interested in belief, and his conclusion is that we should reject the emotional, unconscious part of our mind and form our beliefs using our capacity for rationality, aided by the stringent methodologies of western science. 

Instead of the "big" questions posed by Shermer, Lehrer is interested in a practical issue - what is the best way for us to make decisons?  He talks about the model of rationality first outlined by Plato, in which our reason is the charioteer, driving and guiding the horses (often wild and difficult to direct) of our emotions and impulses.  This ideal has influenced Western thought from Plato onwards (including, obviously, Shermer), but according to Lehrer it is a mistake.

To illustrate the point he tells the story of a man who has his orbito-frontal cortex - one of the key brain areas processing our emotions - destroyed by a brain tumour.  Although his intelligence is unaffected, he is almost completely unable to make even the most simple decisons, like what to have for dinner or where to park his car.  He intensely compares and analyses his options, but never reaches a conclusion.

From here Lehrer spins a vivid tale of how our brains make decisions.  To summarise what is a complex and absorbing tale (or set of tales), it goes something like this.  Our rational brains are good at computing.  They do numbers and measurements, and compare objective elements of our various choices.  They keep a check on our emotions, and allow us to avoid obvious, silly mistakes.  However, these same rational brains are easily deceived.  They are only able to deal with about seven variables at once, and get easily overloaded.  They are also not good at aesthetic decisions.  Thus, people asked to rate a set of posters - some with classic artworks, some with funny cats - will almost always choose the classic art.  Yet if they are asked to explain the reasons for their choice before choosing, many more of them will choose the funny cats, even though they regret it later.  Their reason gets in the way of their better judgement.

So what to do?  Well, for Lerher the brain is something like a committee meeting.  Our rational mind will add up figures and caution us about factuality.  The pleasure centres of the brain will flood us with dopamine when we consider a choice that appeals to us - even though there may be no obvious rational explanation.  The pain avoidance centres will likewise flood us with apprehension when we consider things that appear unpleasant.  We need to listen to all of these things to make good decisions.  Counter-intuitively, the more complex a decision, the more we need to trust our emotions and the less we can rely on our rationality.  We can reason our way to choosing the right vegetable peeler, but if we are buying a house or a car we need to trust our emotions.

So if Lehrer and Shermer were in a room together and discussing how to decide what belief system to follow, what would they say to each other?  I can't find that this scenario has ever been played out, at least not in public, but perhaps it would go like this.  Shermer would say that our emotions and our unconscious impulses are not to be trusted because they are biased.  Therefore they need to be overridden by evidence.  Lehrer might reply that the matters under consideration are so complex that our rational minds can't cope with the number of variables, and that listening to our emotions will help us to make better decisions about these things. 

Shermer would respond, perhaps, that our emotions are tutored by our environment and our upbringing, so that if we have consistently been taught something that is factually incorrect, hearing it will produce pleasure. Lehrer would agree that the debate in our brains needs to involve all parties and that sometimes our fear at abandoning treasured ideas needs to be overridden by rationality.  But at other times, when the answer that appears so rational nevertheless makes us feel sick in the stomach, then perhaps our emotions are pointing us to something beyond the comprehension of our reason, and we would be foolish to ignore it.

Aristotle apparently described humanity as a "rational animal".  Jonathan Swift begged to differ, describing us as "an animal capable of reason".  Lehrer seems to suggests it's not so simple.  We are indeed capable of reason, but reason may not be all its cracked up to be.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Believing Brain

William James is supposed to have said, "Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."  Courtesy of a tip from Roo and the friendly folk at the Brisbane City Council library service, I've finally got my hands on Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain, which explains this aphorism in a lot more detail.

I previously encountered Shermer through his Why People Believe Weird Things, a fun journey through a set of beliefs on the edge of the intellectual world like Holocaust denial, alien abduction, Ayn Rand's Objectivism and the psi quotient.  Shermer revealed himself as an intensely curious, sympathetic but highly skeptical observer, constantly on the hunt for evidence. 

The Believing Brain covers some of the same territory but it's a much more technical book dealing with the question from the point of view of Shermer's own specialist field, neuro-psychology.  What it is about our brains, Shermer wants us to know, that makes us so prone to belief, of whatever kind?

There's a lot of detail about the operation of neurons and brain chemicals, the functions of different parts of the brain, and the way our brains respond to certain stimuli.  What it comes down to, though, is three things - patternicity, agenticity and bias. 

Patternicity: Our brains have evolved to seek and recognise patterns in their surrounding environment.  A primitive hominid, wandering in the jungles of Africa, hears the rustling of leaves.  It could be a lion about to turn him or her into dinner.  It could also just be the wind in the leaves.  The hominid has to make an instant decision.  The one who assumes it is a lion and runs away is likely to survive, irrespective of whether there actually is a lion.  The one that doesn't is likely to be eaten.  The one that runs away is our ancestor.  Hence, an inability to see patterns where they actually exist is fatal, but a tendency to percieve non-existent patterns has no evolutionary cost, so it is likely to persist.

Agenticity: Part of the reason our ancestors were so successful in doing this is that they were able to perceive the intentions of other creatures - both people and animals.  "That lion plans to eat me".  A peculiar characteristic of our species is that we attribute agency to all sorts of things, including things like rocks, trees, the sky and so on which actually have no intentions. 

Bias: These tendencies are far from superficial - they lie at the basis of our brain function, encoded in the way our brains work, in the electrical impulses and interplay of brain chemicals that accompany thought.  The result, says Shermer, is that our beliefs are seldom formed through a rational examination of the evidence.  Belief comes first, evidence follows, and we automatically look for evidence which supports our pre-existing beliefs, noticing the supporting facts and screening out the contradictory ones.

From this basis, he moves on to discuss various beliefs, especially focusing on alien visitations, belief in God, political ideology and conspiracy theories.  I found his discussion of visitations (whether by aliens, ghosts, spirits or angels) fascinating.  Our brain, he says, creates an image of our body, repeated in each brain hemisphere.  Perhaps, he says, if these mirror images get out of sync, as they are prone to under pressure - for instance, for solo climbers in the Himalayas, or in the early morning hours of a stressful period in someone's life - the brain will have two rival body images.  Because it knows there should only be one, it seeks a pattern to explain the other and lights on something from memory or culture - an alien, an angel, the ghost of a parent.  He describes how such hallucinations can be reproduced in the laboratory by electrically stimulating certain parts of the brain.  The patterns we find match what we expect to find, but don't correspond to any objective reality.

What is the answer to this sea of irrationality?  Of course you guessed it, it's Science.  The scientific method provides a methodology of controlled experimentation to collect objective evidence, statistical techniques to analyse this evidence, and a system of peer review in which rival scientists will gleefully pull your conclusions to bits if they don't match the evidence.  He doesn't claim perfection for this system, or that scientists are immune from the processes that drive belief, but what he does assert is that it's the best way to arrive at reliable knowledge and to test these beliefs.

One of the things I enjoy about Shermer is the fact that he doesn't overclaim on his evidence.  There is a lot that we know about the functioning of our brains, but also a lot we don't, and words like "might" and "perhaps" appear a lot in this book.  Shermer is happy to speculate but it is generally clear when he is.  He is also clear what his analysis does not prove.

Explaining why someone believes in democracy does not explain away democracy; explaining why someone holds liberal or conservative values within a democracy does not explain away those values.

Indeed.  One thing Shermer skates over, although I am sure he is aware of it, is the distinction between correlation and causality.  It is possible to track what is happening electrically and chemically in our brains as we perform certain types of thought or respond to certain stimuli.  Does this mean the chemical and electronic activity causes the thoughts, or do the thoughts cause the activity?  If you produce hallucinations by electrically stimulating parts of the brain, these hallucinations are not caused by the brain's electrical activity, but by the experimenter's stimulation of it.  In the absence of such artificial stimulation, what else causes these things?  Are the causes always the same?  Shermer is forced back on "might" and "perhaps". 

This is where his own biases are clearly on show, and he makes no attempt to hide them.  He is a materialist, believing that everything has a "natural" cause.  Humans are purely physical - when our body dies, there is nothing else of us to continue on.  There is no god.  This is not the result of his examination of the evidence - he himself is clear that there is no evidence - it is his own philosophical position.  He believes that the burden of proof lies with those who claim otherwise, since something which cannot be proven to exist probably doesn't.  Yet this assumption means that he sees the evidence in a particular way.  All his "perhapses" are naturalistic explanations.  He never says "perhaps some of them really did see angels". 

Shermer devotes the first three chapters of his book to outlining three different world views.  The first is that of a self-taught former bricklayer who once heard a disembodied voice speaking to him, and has built his life around what it said.  The third is devoted to explaining his own world view - converted to fundamentalist Christianity in his teens before drifting towards atheism as the scientific evidence against his version of belief piled up.  Yet he balances his journey from fundamentalism to skepticism with the journey in the opposite direction of distinguished geneticist Dr Francis Collins, who converted to evangelical Christianity in his 20s and has retained this belief alongside considerable scientific eminence.  Shermer is not just being polite when he says that his reasoning does not disprove God's existence - there are enough believers with high level scientific training to show this is an established fact.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Abortion debate in 28 words

Some of my rellies, along with various other people, are currently involved in an attempt to break the world record for the longest Facebook thread.  The subject is, of course, abortion.  The thread is currently up to 380 comments plus various likes and dislikes.  They would have broken the record by now except that the host deleted the original thread in a valiant attempt to enforce some minimum standards of courtesy.

I've carefully refrained from participating.  I've previously tried to bring some ethical nuance to this debate, but I've found it doesn't help much because no-one is listening. 

So my latest idea is that we should dramatise the abortion debate as a kind of Flash Mob event, like this one in a food court, with people popping up from opposite ends of the room to advocate their positions.  In my head it sounds a little like the third section of Bohemian Rhapsody.

Pro-lifer 1: Don't kill babies!

Pro-choicer 1: They're just collections of cells!

Repeat several times and then...

Pro-Choicer 2: It's a woman's right to choose!

Pro-lifer 2: How can you choose to kill babies?

Continue to repeat both couplets before introducing couplet 3.

Pro-lifer 3: All life is sacred!

Pro-choicer 3: What is life?

Further voices could be added to amplify each couplet as the volume rises to cacophonic level.

For those who feel the levity of a Flash Mob is a little inappropriate for such a serious subject, an alternative would be to declaim the different points of view over the backing track to The Doors' Horse Latitudes.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Divided Ethics

For some reason I woke up this morning thinking about a facebook discussion I was part of a while ago over Divided, an American documentary film which argues that "modern youth ministry is contrary to Scripture".  The argument got a little heated (not from me, I was polite).  This morning I woke up thinking about the broader context for it.

The message of Divided is that youth ministry, as in having a youth group as part of your church, is wrong because it divides families.  Proper ministry is ministry to the whole family, together.  Various Bible verses are quoted out of context to support this view and selective stories about youth groups are used to show they corrupt young people and lead to poor outcomes.

So from my description you can already see what I think.  My parents had grown up going to church and had no interest in going back.  At the age of 14 my school friend invited me to a church youth group and I was introduced to both Christianity and to a group of loving, accepting young people who made me feel at home.  36 years later this is still one of the key formative influences in my life.  So of course I think youth groups are a great idea.

But this is all beside the point, as we all talked (and yelled) past each other on this topic.  Let me tell you what I think this is really all about.

For most of my adult life I have been under the influence of Joseph Fletcher's controversial book, Situation Ethics.  Fletcher's view is that there is only one moral absolute, to love, as Paul says in Romans 13:9 - "The commandments...are summed up in this one rule: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'"  Our ethical task is to do what is loving in each situation, even if sometimes this contradicts something that seems commanded in the Bible or is mandated in our laws.

This is not an easy ethic to live by.  Our judgements are incredibly fallible, both because we are apt to be selfish and unkind, and because our knowledge is so incomplete.  So Fletcher has been heavily criticised for giving people an "out" in moral choices and promoting anarchistic individualism.  There is some point to the criticisms and it seems to me we can gain a lot of guidance on what it means to love from the Bible and from Christian tradition.  We would be foolish to simply rely on our own judgement.  Yet ultimately I am with Fletcher.  Love is the law, all else is secondary.

Not so the producers of Divided.  They see at least two things as absolute which I see as relative.

First of all, they see the Bible as providing a blueprint for the whole of life.  They believe that they can find in the Bible a whole pattern for the organisation of the church and individual lives.  This means that there can only be one right way to do things.  The task of the Christian is to study the Bible in order to find that right way, and then do it.  Of course since the words "youth group" do not appear in the Bible (either to be praised or criticised) this can be taken to mean such things are not part of God's plan, but they also then bring in various verses about the role of fathers and families to support this view. 

They would claim that this is their only absolute, but I beg to differ.  Their second is the centrality of the family in Christian life, by which they mean the nuclear family - Dad, Mum and the kids.  Anything that strengthens the family is good, anything that might weaken it or bring non-family influences into children's lives is bad.  The Bible is read through this lens.  Youth groups are bad because they are non-family.

Where does this take you morally?  It takes you towards acting like all people, and all families, are the same - or that they should be, and if they are not they need to be fixed.  It makes you absolutise our particular modern Western version of the family as a small, mobile, discreet unit.  It makes you devalue the wider community.  It makes you liable to forget single people and grandparents, and leaves you vulnerable to turning a blind eye to child abuse and domestic violence.  A family is only as good as it is, and plenty of people need protection from their families.

I'm not a proponent of one right way.  I think we should do what helps, and avoid what hurts.  There is no easy guidebook which will tell us what this is.  We need to think carefully and learn compassion - and then relearn it every time we forget.  Love is hard.  Other ways may seem easier, and more certain, but this security is an illusion.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Paul Keating on Music

Yesterday's Weekend Australian contains a detailed interview with former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating and a short extract from his new book.  In it, he laments the narrowness of our current political culture, the inability of our politicians (especially his successors in the Labor Party) to tell an overarching story about Australia, where we are heading and our place in the world. 

Part of the problem, he says, is that they are too focused on logic and pragmatics at the expense of vision and aesthetics.

Friedrich Schiller, the German philosopher, said: "If man is ever to solve the problems of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom."   

Romantic and idealistic as that view may seem to some, the thought is revelatory of the fact that the greater part of human aspiration has been informed by individual intuition and privately generated passions, more than it has through logic or scientific revelation. The moral basis of our public life, our social organisation, has come from within us - by aspiration and by light, not by some process of logical deduction.

He then moves on to use music as an illustration of what he means.

Music provides the clue: unlike other forms of art, music is not representational. Unlike the outcome of the sciences, it was never discoverable or awaiting discovery. A Mahler symphony did not exist before Mahler created it.

E.T.A. Hoffman, a contemporary of Beethoven's, famously said: "Music reveals to man an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all feelings circumscribed by intellect in order to embrace the inexpressible."

This is not to turn our back on reason. Or to argue that modernism, with all its secular progress through education, industrialisation, communications, transport and the centralised state, has not spectacularly endowed the world as no other movement before it. But a void exists between the drum-roll of mechanisation with its cumulative power of science and the haphazard, explosive power of creativity and passion. Science is forever trying to undress nature while the artistic impulse is to be wrapped in it.

While these approaches are different - perhaps often diametrically opposite - they inform related strands of thinking in ways that promote energy and vision.

This is what I have found when these forces are contemplated in tandem. When passion and reason vie with each other, the emerging inspiration is invariably deeper and of an altogether higher form. One is able to knit between them, bringing into existence an overarching unity - a coherence - which fidelity to the individual strands cannot provide.

Apart from making me wish he was still Prime Minister (given the current alternatives on offer) Keating has said very eloquently something I often try to get out in my own hesitant way.  He applies the lesson to politics - we need to use our intuition, our aesthetic sense, to complement our rational decisions, not replace them.

I've been thinking the same in the church.  So often our songs are just another way of expressing our dogma.  Our songwriters and musicians write and play out of an intellectual straitjacket of "correct doctrine" which means only certain forms of words are acceptable.  This is part of what worried me about the Twist conference that I reacted so strongly to. 

Music at its best, whether in church or in wider society, should open up another realm to us, something that can't be easily encapsulated in theological or sociological formulae.  If it could be pinned down in words, music would no longer be necessary.  It alerts us to the fact that our formulae are only ever approximations of the truth.  Sure, "the truth is out there" but if we think we understand it we are selling it short.  Perhaps it's a bit like what the other Paul says in Romans 8:26-27.

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

More Lives of Jesus 4: Crossan and Reed

So, after John Carroll's existential midrash on the life of Jesus, we return to a more typical type of contemporary midrash, the historical reconstruction.  Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L Reed represents a detailed forensic examination of historical evidence in the tradition of the Jesus Seminar, of which Crossan was co-chair for a decade.  Crossan is perhaps the more famous of this pair of authors, known for his New Testament scholarship and his reconstructions of Jesus' life and the first century church.  Reed, while lower profile, appears to be just as distinguished in academic terms and specialises in Palestinian archaeology. Within the dual focus of their sub-title, the division of labour seems clear - Reed deals with stones, Crossan with texts.

It is the combination of the two which provides the power and fascination of this book.  The archaeology of first century Palestine can't tell us much in particular about Jesus, but it can give us a vivid picture of his place and times.  The key is to dig to the right level and distinguish the buildings and other material remains of the first century.  By analogy, the authors use the same process for the texts.  These have at least four layers - the original words and deeds of Jesus; the oral accounts and memories which circulated amongst his first followers; the first written records of these, in the gospel of Mark, the presumed "Q" gospel which provided extra material for Matthew and Luke, the writings of Paul, and later but independent non-canonical writings such as the gospels of Peter and Thomas and the Didache; and as a fouth layer the additions and editorial glosses of the later Biblical writers themselves. 

The authors use these layers to perform a kind of triangulation.  If something appears (perhaps in different form but with the same content) in more than one of the third layer sources (say, in both Mark's gospel and Thomas's) then it probably comes from a source that precedes them.  If it only appears in one, it is more likely to be a later addition.  The authors acknowledge that this is a controversial procedure and take a reasonably humble approach to it, but the items they identify are those most widely agreed to originate with Jesus himself or his immediate followers.  This is then placed in the historical context revealed by archaeology and the early historians, particularly Josephus and to a lesser extent Philo.

What emerges is this.  The core of Jesus' message, the Kingdom of God, was an act of non-violent but far from passive resistance against the Kingdom of Rome.  Against the heirarchy of the Roman empire, symbolised by its palaces and fortresses in which the subjects came to the Emperor (or his representatives) and bowed before him, Jesus opposed a centreless regime in which he travelled to the people, lived with them and served them where they were.  Against the merchantile empire of Rome which concentrated wealth in the cities and in the hands of the few, Jesus opposed a communal life in which possessions were shared and justice and equality reigned.  Against the Roman claim to ownership of the land Jesus opposed God's covenantal ownership in which the people of Israel were stewards.  Jesus chose neither the path of violent resistance of the Zealots, nor the withdrawal of the Essenes, but lived out his message with his followers right under the eyes of the Roman and Jewish authorities.

This mode of resistence meant that he, like his predecessor John the Baptist, was openly challenging the Roman system and its Jewish collaborators, and was destined ultimately for punishment - especially when he went to Jerusalem and directly challenged them through the cleansing of the Temple.  This is also why only he was executed at the time - if he had led a violent resistence, his followers would also have been slaughtered, but for a non-violent protest it was enough to execute the leader and hope the followers would then disperse.  Of course they didn't, and many were executed in later years in a further attempt to stamp out the movement.

Which of course brings us to the resurrection, and what to me is Crossan and Reed's most interesting chapter in this fascinating and vivid book.  They accept for the sake of argument that the resurrection occurred and ask instead the historical question - what did it mean?  In its first century Jewish context, they are clear that there were a number of things it didn't mean.  It didn't mean resuscitation, for instance, a nearly dead person returning to life.  Nor did it mean an "apparition" - a ghost or spirit talking with his followers from the land of the dead - or exaltation, the spirit of the person being caught up to be with God.  All these things were well understood in the ancient world and are different to what was said about Jesus.

The resurrection, in their view, is intimately linked with his earthly program - his role as an eschatological or apocalyptic prophet.  The just, holy kingdom promised by the prophets involved the resurrection of the martyrs, those who had died in earlier times as a result of their faithfulness to God.  Jesus' resurrection was the herald, the beginning, of this more general resurrection of God's servants, which would surely follow.  It was in expectation of this completed resurrection that the disciples, under the leadership of Peter and of Jesus' brother James, gathered in Jerusalem to wait.  It was also in expectation of this that Paul and his companions travelled throughout the empire, announcing the coming of this Kingdom to Jew and pagan alike.

In the process, they present us with a first century take on that most common piece of modern apologetics, the fearlessness of the disciples and rapid growth of the Church as evidence for the resurrection.  In our post-Enlightenment world view, they say, "impossibility battles with uniqueness" - the miracles and resurrection appear improbable, but Christians argue that they are one-off, unique events attested to by their followers' passion.  In the first century this argument would have been totally irrelevant.  The miracles and resurrection would be seen as neither impossible, nor as unique.  No-one would have had any trouble believing them and most ancient religions involved similar claims.  Instead, the arguments of the early Christians centred around the question of superiority.  For believers, the clincher was not the truth of the events, but the superiority of the message they conveyed - the reality of the liberation and justice that flowed from the Kingdom of God, enacted in their own believing communities.  Those who remained inconvinced remained so primarily because they could not see the value of this message, not because they disputed its truth.

Hence the midrash.  As for them, the authors are implying, so for us.  By building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of Jesus' grave, with the magnificent architecture of a Roman palace, Constantine transformed Christianity from a radical challenge to the Kingdom of Rome into a mirror of it.  No longer did the Christian church go out among the people and create a kingdom of justice and shared wealth.  Now people came to the palatial church, built with the wealth of Constantine's merchantile empire, and paid homage there to the twin powers of Church and State.  It made the church safe, not to mention rich and powerful, but what became of Jesus' message?