Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Emergency Behaviour

Recently my local paper featured a story about the Lifeline shop in our local shopping centre, finally re-opening after the January flood.  They were glad to be open again, but struggling for volunteers, and hoped that the community spirit that got us through the flood would bring them more volunteers.

I've got some bad news for them.  The spirit of the floods will not continue.  People behave differently in an emergency.  There's normal life, and then there's what you do in a time of crisis.

To some extent, this is sad.  The willingness of Brisbane people to help complete strangers back in January was one of the best things that's happened here in years, even as the flood itself was one of the worst.  The fact that we are now back to our normal routine - neither particularly good nor particularly evil - is a bit of a let-down.

On the other hand, emergency behaviour is unpredictable.  We recently read stories from London of ordinary middle class young people looting shops, stealing things they didn't need just because they could.  They wouldn't normally do that, but people behave differently in an emergency.

In our normal life we have very clear boundaries defining what's socially acceptable.  In Australia it's clearly not acceptable to take someone else's property, even though some do.  We like it that way.  We're shocked when someone breaks the taboo, as people have been doing recently in our suburb.  A few weeks ago someone took the broken hot water system from under my house.  It was rubbish awaiting disposal, but its theft made me profoundly uneasy.  When an emergency like the London riots, or indeed our own flood, unleashes a tide of looting we feel that anarchy cannot be far away.  We give our police emergency powers.  Normal laws and freedoms are suspended.

Yet it is also not socially acceptable for Australians to interact too closely with strangers.  It is certainly not acceptable to wander into their homes and offer to help them clean up their houses and yards.  A polite conversation is acceptable but if it goes beyond two exchanges one of the parties will begin to look around for an escape.  A random offer of assistance is cause for deep suspicion, and is almost certain to be refused.

Our reaction to the flood suggests that we may not be entirely comfortable with this in ourselves.  We long for something closer, more open, more trusting.  Yet this will not come in a rush, as a result of a single emergency.  Our fear of anarchy will not allow it.  Emergency behaviour is too unpredictable.  It is just as likely to bring out our dark side as our noble side.

No, it will only come as a result of a sustained, deliberate change, a deep social and personal transformation.  This demon can only be cast out through prayer and fasting.

Friday, 26 August 2011

One Up for the Baby Boomers

Fellow blogger Brad posted this interesting rave about cross generational computer skills, in which he refers to the technologically illiterate baby boomers and the current generation who have such easy to use technology that it requires no knowledge.  The the most tech capable people are therefore sandwiched between these two generations.

Anyway, this story popped into my head and I popped it into his comments box, but I liked it so thought I'd post it here too. 

My depression/war generation Dad was one of the early users of computers in Brisbane.  He was an electrical engineer who designed giant transformers (the sort that convert electrical current, not the ones that turn into fighting robots).  In the late 1960s he used to go into the Computer Centre in the city and get them to put cards through their huge machines to work out complex equations for him. I didn't inherit any of his technological skills so I became a social worker and only started using computers when it became really easy.

Years later, after he retired, he bought a set of speakers for his home PC. He couldn't get them to work so he asked my son  to come and help him. Ben is now an engineer himself, but was then a geeky teenager who had literally been introduced to computers on his grandfather's knee.  A couple of hours later I went to pick him up, and the old pro and young nerd had still not been able to work it out. I immediately noticed the problem. They hadn't switched the speakers on at the wall.

One up for the technologically illiterate baby boomer parent!

Picture from here.

Monday, 22 August 2011

2 Timothy 3:16

2 Timothy 3:16-17 is one of those snippets of scripture you get taught to memorise when you're a young evangelical.  I haven't read it for a while but it formed part of our readings on Sunday morning and it struck me that I had learnt it without thinking clearly about what it means.  Now's my chance to make up for that lack.  Here's the passage.

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

We were taught that this verse was a key indication that we should believe the Bible in its entirety.  It was often combined with a passing reference in 2 Peter 3:16 (what is it with that chapter and verse number?) to Paul's writings "which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures", to indicate that Paul's writing's come under the same heading and should also be treated as inspired.

Of course unlike Paul (more on that later) I was taught to read bible passages in context, but I somehow had no memory of the context of this one.  Paul is encouraging his younger protege in his task of guiding the church in Ephesus.  He is encouraged to rely on two connected sources of knowledge to fortify his faith - the example of Paul and the others who have taught him during his life, and on "the Holy Scriptures", which he has known from infancy. 

So let's take the last two verses bit by bit.

"All Scripture"
What is Paul talking about here?  Well, if we accept the traditional view that Paul is the author of this letter then from the context  it seems most likely that he is talking about the Old Testament and perhaps also the Old Testament Apocrypha which many New Testament writers use freely in their teachings.  He is clearly not talking about any of the New Testament writings because he is talking about what Timothy learned in his infancy, before any of the Christian writings existed.  The only way this passage can be made to refer to any of the New Testament writings is to accept the view of some scholars that it was not, in fact, written by Paul but is of unknown authoriship and dates from the late first or early second centuries.  Even then, it could not date from any time when there was anything like a fixed New Testament canon.

All this begs the question as to the authority of this statement itself.  Why should we believe Paul when he says this?  Paul clearly expects himself to be believed because of his example and his relationship with Timothy.  In other words, Timothy is being asked to continue a tradition which has been handed down to him.

"Is God-breathed"
The version I memorised said "all scripture is inspired by God".  This construction is clearly grammatical nonsense, since to "inspire" is literally to "breathe in", and it makes no sense for God to breathe in his own scripture.  Rather, the sense is that God breathed it out and the writers breathed it in.  The word "spirit" is derived from the word "breath" so the Holy Spirit is best understood as the "breath of God".  What is being suggested here is that the people who wrote the Scriptures were under the influence of God's Spirit.

This is a far more nebulous assertion than we were taught to believe.  It clearly says that the scriptures have their origin in God, but what exactly is the nature of the infuence of the Spirit on the authors?  Theologians have argued at length about the alternatives of "verbal inspiration" (every word comes from God) and "plenary inspiration" (the whole comes from God), and the relative roles of an infallible God and the fallible, culture-bound humans through whom God spoke.  Paul offers us no help with this question.

"..and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness..."
Paul is most struck by the usefulness of Scripture.  He wants it to be used for a particular purpose - "so that the man of God may be equipped for every good work".  Scripture is where we learn to do what is right.

What strikes me is that Paul himself uses scripture in quite a different way to how we are taught to use it.  Take for instance his set of scripture quotes in Romans 3:10-18.  Here he uses a number of quotes from scripture, each of them taken out of context, to illustrate the point he has already made (without prior scripture reference) that all humans have sinned against God.  Such examples abound in the New Testament writings and serve to remind us how culture-bound our own traditions of interpretation are.  Paul feels free, and by implication is encouraging Timothy to feel free, to use the scripture to illustrate or reinforce his teaching, which he has learned from Paul and from his own mother and grandmother.

To summarise.
  1. It's not at all clear that we should treat this statement itself with any particular reverence or authority.
  2. It clearly does not refer to any of the New Testament writings, only to pre-Christian Jewish scriptures.
  3. It does not imply that these scriptures are inerrant, only that the writers, in some unspecified way, are under the infuence of God.
  4. It emphasises the use to which the scriptures are to be put, not any kind of truth claims.
This verse will only give you certainty if you are already certain. 

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Solving the Solution

What do the English riots and social problems in remote Australian Aboriginal communities have in common?  Well, there are probably a few things but one of them is that they have brought both critics and defenders of the welfare state to the fore.

For the defenders, the riots are a protest against the welfare cuts of the new Tory Government.  They are an overflow of the stress of poverty exacerbated by the fear of lost entitlements.  For the critics, on the other hand, these generous welfare measures are part of the problem.  They encourage people to think that the world owes them a living, and enculturate them into a "something for nothing" mentality which disempowers them and disengages them from society.

This same debate has been going on for years in Australia, particularly focused around the problems of Aboriginal communities.  Noel Pearson, a prominent Aboriginal leader from Cape York, has long been a critic of the welfare state, seeing it as destroying the initiative and economic independence of Aboriginal communities.  Other Aboriginal advocates, like Pat Dodson, see the problem as about economic injustice, and the solution in a greater level of wealth redistribution via compensation for stolen lands.

This is a complex debate, and one so easily hijacked by politicians for their own ends.  A little historical perspective might help keep the discussion more open.

The creation of the modern welfare state was shaped by two pivotal 20th Century events - the Great Depression, and the Second World War.  The Depression saw mass unemployment with almost no welfare safety net.  Unemployed men and women tramped the country looking for work, and those who could find it were often little better off as wages dropped below subsistence levels.  The experience was deeply shocking.

The War was shocking in a different way as many of the same men went off to fight, and often die, for what they saw as their countries' interests.  Meanwhile those at home worked and sacrificed for the promise of a better society to emerge after the war.  This sacrifice was seen by many as a clear social compact - we will fight and sacrifice now, and after it is over we will work together to create a better society.

Delivery of the welfare state was a clear part of this compact, and the decades after the war largely saw this fulfilled.  Unemployment benefits were put in place for those who couldn't find work, and also for those who couldn't work for reasons of disability or parenting responsibilities.  Public housing took the place of inner city slums.  Public hospitals ensured universal access to basic health care.  Public schools ensured the same for education.

Those of us who grew up after the war largely take the resulting security for granted.  The fact that starvation is almost unknown in our society, that most people can read and write, and that even the poorest can have high quality cancer treatment, is no longer amazing to us.  Hence, it is easy for us to find ourselves nodding when right wing commentators blame this system for many of our social problems.

So how has the solution come to be seen as part of the problem?  Well, I'm tempted to just blame the right and their big business backers who would prefer to pay less tax and who can afford to pay their own medical bills thanks.  However, this sounds so much like a slogan that there must be more to it.

I think a big part of the problem is that our welfare system is very much an industrial insititution, and it is trying to cope in a post-industrial society.  Public housing estates are a great example.  After the war, large estates were built in places like Inala on the edge of Brisbane, Broadmeadows on the edge of Melbourne, or Elizabeth on the edge of Adelaide.  These estates were located near large industrial areas, and their working class residents worked in these industries.  Their children were educated in the local public schools and those who didn't use this education to escape to the middle class went and worked in the same factories as their parents.  Social security provided a backstop for when jobs were in short supply.  The same story can be told in remote Australia, but substitute Aboriginal communities for public housing estates, and pastoral work for factory work.

This all worked fine up until the 1970s, but then things started to change.  The factories that didn't close automated.  Cattle stations substituted helicopters for men on horseback.  Suddenly communities which had vibrant economic lives turned into communities where there was nothing to do.  In the process of this change unemployment rose back towards where it had been in the Depression, and people started moving again.  However, this time the movement was different.  Those who had been best able to take advantage of the educational opportunities created by the welfare state moved out of these communities to where they could find work.  Those least able to use this education, for whatever reason, stayed on or moved in to places where they were now trapped in a cycle of poverty.  Thanks to the welfare state they didn't starve, but there was no exit plan. 

The welfare state is not the problem.  The problem is the structure of our economy, and the way it rewards some while excluding others.  But neither is it the solution it used to be.  It still provides subsistence, and idleness is more bearable if you're not constantly hungry.  But its industrial assumptions, its mass programs and its system of rewards and punishments are not geared to the post-industrial world.

The most popular solution, touted by conservative poticians the world over, is the idea of "mutual obligation".  This misses the point.  The welfare state has always involved mutual obligation.  It has always been a social compact.  People receive unemployment benefits as long as they look for work.  People receive public housing as long as they pay the rent and care for the house.  Those who fail to meet their obligations will have their benefits cancelled or be evicted from their housing.  21st century advocates of mutual obligation are not changing anything, they are just beefing up the sanctions.

The solution to this problem would require a series of posts which, despite being a social policy professional, I'm hardly qualified to write.  However, a brief teaser.  The problem with "mututal obligation" policies is that at present we don't have a framework for making them truly mutual.  We know what we want of recipients - work or study hard, make an effort, contribute to society.  However, we don't really know what we want the State, or the society, to deliver. 

We think these people should have access to work.  But providing work is left to the market.  What happens when the market doesn't deliver?  What happens when we painstakingly train someone for an occupation which becomes obsolete?  We want people to move from poor communities where there's no work to areas of high employment.  But what housing is available to them there?  What communities will they become part of and from where will their social support and companionship come?  If they are Aboriginal, how will they fare in a foreign culture, away from their country, and who will help them and welcome them?

Simply cutting welfare, and increasing sanctions for non-compliance, won't do the job.  These are industrial-scale responses unsuited to a post-industrial world.  We may even (shock! horror!) need to spend more on welfare to get the outcome we need.  But we need to understand it as an investment, and invest wisely.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Doors - Dark Corridors

I've been listening to The Doors for the first time.  Really listening, I mean.  I've known of their music for years, had a tape or two in my collection, had them playing as I drove or read.  In fact it's hard to avoid them if you sometimes listen to the radio, or have neighbours who do.  They're one of those ubiquitous bits of our popular culture.  Yet this is the first time I've really set myself to listen properly.  Let me tell you, it's not for the fainthearted.

The Doors were formed in 1966 and burst onto public consciousness in 1967 with their self-titled first album.  Four years, seven albums and untold quantities of alcohol and narcotics later, it ended with Jim Morrison dead in a Paris hotel room.  The other three band members - keyboard player Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummmer John Densmore - tried to continue but most of the creative spark departed with Morrison, singer, chief lyricist and creator of stage mayhem.

The band's name comes from a book called The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, in which he describes his experiences under the influence of the narcotic mescaline.  Huxley himself took the title from line of William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."  For Huxley, mescaline opened the door onto a wider spiritual experience, a heightened perception of reality which enables him to reflect on and deepen his understanding.  The Doors, however, open out onto a dark corridor, a labyrinth from which it seems impossible to escape.

In the era of the Summer of Love and Woodstock (peace, love and rock'n'roll), The Doors were countercultural even within the counterculture.  While their contemporaries were bringing an end to war and promoting the virtues of free love and equality, they were exploring the dark side of  being human.  Their live shows were unpredictable and dangerous, depending on Morrison's state of mind and blood alcohol level.  Sometimes they were electrifying, at other times shambolic.  Then there were the times when Morrison, bored with performing, would taunt the audience, or the police, into starting a riot.  Or the time in Miami when he allegedly exposed himself on stage, leading to a court case which was still unresolved at the time of his death. 

The closest they came to a peace song was Peace Frog.

Blood in the streets in the town of New Haven
Blood stains the roofs and the palm trees of Venice
Blood in my love in the terrible summer
Bloody red sun of Phantastic L.A.

Blood screams her brain as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born in the birth of a nation
Blood is the rose of mysterious union.

The love songs are not much more encouraging.  There's the raw, loveless sex of Roadhouse Blues, or for something more sinister, the creepy stalker aleination of The Spy.

I'm a spy in the house of love
I know the dream, that you're dreamin' of
I know the word that you long to hear
I know your deepest, secret fear
I know everything
Everything you do
Everywhere you go
Everyone you know

Then, of course, there's Light My FireTheir most mainstream song and the closest thing they did to a "normal" love song courtesy of Robbie Krieger's lyric, it was nonetheless the centre of one of the more notorious incidents in their career.  They were asked to sing it on the Ed Sullivan Show, a guaranteed audience of millions, but they were also asked to change the lyric.

You know that it would be untrue
you know that I would be a liar
if I were to say to you
that we couldn't get much higher.

Apparently you couldn't say "higher" on national TV because it might be seen as a drug reference.  The Doors are not short on drug references but this doesn't seem to be one of them.  They agreed to the change beforehand, but during the live performance Morrison sang the original lyric anyway, leading to a public snub from Sullivan and widespread outrage which did nothing to harm their edgy outlaw reputation.

If only the CBS censors had looked at the next verse.

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire.
Try now, we can only lose
and our love become a funeral pyre.

That's something it would have made sense to censor: a dangerous, even deadly love, a passion so risky it could kill you, the dark side of the Summer of Love.

In our more relaxed era, Light My Fire has become a staple of rock radio, its hypnotic keyboard part, growling vocal and skillfull solos standing the test of time.  However, you are not likely to hear The End on mainstream radio any time soon, with its terrifying Freudian spoken section.

The killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and...then he
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door...and he looked inside
"Father".  "Yes, son".  "I want to kill you."
"Mother...I want to..."

So why am I telling you all this?   Why would you let yourself be drawn into this dark, dangerous corridor, opening on rooms containing things you would rather not see?  Well, if you're like me you might listen purely for the music, the jazz-tinged instrumental virtuousity a cut above most 60's rock music, and Morrison's gruff baritone a change from the usual rock singer falsetto. 

However, there's another reason.  The public face we present to the world, the face of courtesy, respectability, kindness, peace, love, is only part of who we are.  Hiding behind is this other face, the face of despair and violence, the face of fear and hatred, the face of war and mayhem.  It's dangerous to look into this face.  Morrison died before he reached 30, trying to drown his demons in whisky and heroin.  There but for the grace of God go we.

*You can also check out my review of John Densmore's book Riders on the Storm here.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Practice Makes Perfect

For a long time I've wondered why some people seem so certain of what they believe, while I find myself so often vacillating and asking questions.  While I was out riding my bike this morning it occurred to me that it's because they practice.

It's very much like playing guitar (something else I'm not very good at).  A brilliant guitarist like Bruce Cockburn or Jeff Lang makes it look and sound easy, but they can only do that because they have spent hours behind closed doors playing scales and arpeggios over and over again until they can do it without thinking.  They have usually started young, when their hands and brains are still supple.  They also look after their hands like precious treasures.  I've never forgotten the bushwalk I went on with a serious classical guitarist - he wore thick gloves the whole day because he couldn't afford to cut his hands.  Of course they need some talent and the right shaped fingers, but without all that hard work and care they would be nothing.

Belief is the same.  People can stand up in public and argue for their convictions, but they only do it well through years of training.  Some people have more talent for it than others, but without practice the talent will be wasted.  Like a musician, you have to immerse yourself in your chosen belief.  You have to read the right books, listen to the right speakers, surround yourself with people who think as you do.  You have to shield yourself from contrary influences and shocks which could damage your certainty.  You have to train yourself strictly - often with the help of others - to shut out doubt.  In the end it will come naturally to you, and you'll wonder why other people don't see things as clearly as you do.

Of course such skills are transferable.  A master guitarist can quickly learn piano or mandolin.  Someone who has mastered certainty in, say, religion, can transfer that skill to other fields, like science or politics or even atheism.  But the core skills have to be there, and you have to keep practicing.

I tried to cultivate the skill of certainty, but I think I started too late.  By the time I immersed myself in the culture of a conservative church I was in my 20s.  I had a whole childhood and adolescence of training in critical thought, in asking awkward questions, in not accepting authoritative answers.  Hard as I tried, the questions kept coming.  I kept asking them at awkward moments, and I kept not being satisfied with the answers.

Some people possibly feel that I didn't work hard enough at it, and that if I'd kept going I might have eventually mastered it.  Maybe they're right.  I like to think that I had a different calling.  From my earliest days I was trained to think a bit differently to everyone else.  Not so differently that people would think I was batty, but differently enough that I would never be on quite the same course as those around me.  I was trained to ask questions and go on asking, to poke into the soft spots of an argument and see if it squealed.  I took classes in it, I practiced it day in and day out. 

I would always have been second rate at total commitment.  As it is, I'm highly skilled at uncertainty.  Practice makes perfect.  If you share your certainty with me, I'll share my uncertainty with you, and perhaps between us we could make a great duet.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Protestantism and Atheism

One of the things that struck me in Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism was the link he makes between the Reformation and the rise of atheism.  He says

A distinctive feature of the Reformation, particularly associated with the leading reformers Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, is the "desacralisation" of nature....The declaration that the natural world was not in any way sacred opened the way to its scientific investigation.  There could be no religious obstacles to the analysis of the world.  The world increasingly became seen as a machine or an instrument - of divine origins, of course, but increasingly distant from God.  The material world might have been created by God; it could not, however, convey the divine presence.... popular Catholicism sacred and secular times, events and places were so closely associated that they were often indistinguishable....The individual had a strong sense of place within the cosmos that radiated the glory of God and displayed a divine structure.  The sacred was present within the world's events, rhythms and patterns.  One expected to encounter and experience the divine in everyday life.

The Protestant reformers were strongly critical of any such suggestions.  Not entirely without reason, they suspected that medieval Catholicism occasionally degenerated into a folk religion of nature.  An immediate encounter with God through nature was excluded, almost as a matter of principle.  God had chosen to reveal himself through the Bible, and the authorised mode of knowing God was therefore through reading that Bible, and hearing sermons based upon its contents....Whereas medieval Catholicism saw the focus of worship as the altar of the church, the pulpit now became the focal point of Protestant worship....

The rise of Protestantism thus gave rise to an absent God who was known only indirectly - and then through the mind rather than the imagination.

This is why McGrath stresses the importance of Pentecostalism in the growth of the church and the diminution of the influence of atheism.  Pentecostalism represents a revival of total involvement, of direct experiential contact with God.  It takes the theism/atheism debate out of the realm of dry intellectual argument and into lived experience.  However, for us Protestants who are not Pentecostal, what is our answer to this problem?

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately.  I mostly sit in church and feel uninspired.  We sing some songs together.  We listen to the Bible, then we listen while someone talks to us about it.  Sometimes this is inspiring and thought provoking, sometimes it's not.  Then we listen to someone pray.  Then we listen to someone read the notices.  Then we have a cuppa and chat and go home.  Often the cuppa is the best bit.

It's not that people aren't trying, or that they don't work hard at what they do.  But 90% of the activity is based around listening.  We have a small amount of visual stumulation.  Sometimes the preacher uses visuals, and of course we read the words of the songs.  We have no tactile involvement, nothing "hands on".  We have no olfactory stimulation.  We have a tiny taste of communion bread and wine once a month.  Of all the myriad human arts we only use music, and that only in a limited way.  We have a group of children who occasionally dance.  No drama, no poetry, no painting, no sculpture, no construction, no culinary art.  God is supposed to consume and direct my whole being, but most of my being is left to its own devices.

This is not why Dawkins et al are atheists.  In fact, despite reading their works I'm still not sure why they are.  But it's why so many people don't bother with church.  Surely we can do better.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Twilight of Atheism

And now for something completely different - a book about atheism by someone who is not an atheist.  Alister McGrath is currently a Professor of Theology at Kings College, London and at the time of writing this book was Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford.  Prior to that he had a scientific carreer with a doctorate in molecular biophysics.  He is clearly no fool and just as clearly no atheist.

I have to admit that The Twilight of Atheism was not the book I was expecting to read.  I picked it up expecting to read an educated refutation of atheism.  Instead, I got something equally fascinating - a historical analysis of the rise of atheism and of what McGrath sees as its subsequent decline. 

In his reading, modern atheism gained strength and influence in the latter half of the 18th century, in the events leading up to and surrounding the French Revolution.  In this context, atheism was seen as a force for liberation, with the church clearly aligned with the oppressive regimes of France and other European countries.  Revolutionaries believed that to break the power of the monarchy and aristocracy they would also have to break the power of the church, and atheism provided a powerful, liberating alternative.

A number of other factors added to its success and growth.  The rise of rationalism and the modernist worldview were tailor-made for atheism, emphasising the mastery of humans over the natural world and our ability to understand it through the processes of reason.  The scientific discoveries that resulted from this world-view also called into question, if not Chrisitianity itself, then many of the aspects of what had come to be seen as the "christian" world-view, such as the centrality of the earth in universe, the "argument from design" and the literal seven-day creation and flood.   In addition, European poets and artists of the 19th century found Christianity imaginatively impoverished and turned to atheism and paganism for their inspiration, weakening the imaginative hold of Christianity.  More of this in a subsequent post.

McGrath highlights the work of several key thinkers along the way - Feuerbach's notion of religion as a creation of the human imagination, Marx's analysis of it as "the opium of the people" which would whither away once liberation was acheived, Freud's identification of it as pathological.  What these thinkers have in common is a triumphalist view of atheism.  Religion was holding back progress - philosophical, socio-economic, psychological - and atheism would pave the way for spectacular change and improvement.

However, later generations saw things in less rosy terms.  Neitzsche, the supposed originator of the idea that "God is dead", did not necessarily see this as a triumph.  Nor did Albert Camus.  For them, the world without God was a bleak, absurd place and in God's absence people would reach for all sorts of less desirable alternatives.

For McGrath, the causes of the decline of atheism mirror the causes for its rise.  The communist regimes of Eastern Europe, far from demonstrating the liberating power of atheism, showed it up as an oppressor at least as bad as the religions it replaced.  As soon as people were free of compulsory atheism, they returned to religion in force.  The credentials of atheism as liberator were irreperably damaged.

This damage was aided and abetted by the rise of post-modernism.  Atheism is the natural "religion" of modernism, an expression of certainty in a monolithic view of truth informed by science and reason.  For post-modernists, this certainly is itself oppressive, leading to a suppression and diversity and a silencing of dissent and difference.  The old certainties of the 19th century have become increasingly untenable in the 20th and 21st. 

Religion, too, adapted to meet the challenge of atheism.  The rise of the pentecostal movement is a key development turning religion from a dry philosophical activity to a lived experence which fuels the imagination of its followers.

What I found most remarkable about reading this book, after reading the likes of Dennett, Harris and Dawkins, is how different its picture of atheism is from theirs.  For all these writers, the primary driver of atheism is science.  They both believe science has disproved religion, and seek scientific explanations for its continuing hold on humanity.  Yet despite his own scientific background, McGrath pays little attention to "scientific" atheism, barring a couple of passing references to Dawkins.  Even Darwin, according to McGrath's reading, did not become an atheist in response to his scientific discoveries, but in response to his grief over the death of his daughter and his inability to think of her in hell.

The atheism of McGrath's account has much more in common with that of Michel Onfray.  Indeed, it shows Onfray up as a bit of a throwback, mouthing enlightenment thinking long after the enlightenment has passed.  For McGrath atheism is much more a political and philosophical viewpoint than a scientific one, rooted in its time and place, responding to the issues of a time which has now passed and ill-suited to the challenges of the 21st century.

I wonder, though, if he is a little premature in pronouncing its "twilight" phase.  His book was first published in 2004, well after the World Trade Centre bombing, but he doesn't seem to have noticed or predicted the fillip this event and its aftermath would give to the atheist cause.  Dawkins' documentary The Root of all Evil and subsequent book The God Delusion, as well as the popular works of Harris and Dennett, were all written after The Twilight of Atheism.  They are infused with a genuine urgency to combat what these writers see as the religious root of this atrocity, and their writers have shown an increasingly energetic willingness to publicise and proselytise.  Nor are these writers the cranks and oddballs who people McGrath's descriptions of contemporary atheism.  Perhaps atheism has more life left in it than McGrath thought.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Hendra Virus Makes Some People Batty

Queensland's media and politicians are currently in a tizz about what is being referred to as an outbreak of Hendra Virus.  For those outside Queensland who may not have been following this story, Hendra virus primarily occurs in populations of flying foxes, giant fruit-eating bats of the genus pteropus.  However, from time to time it also spills over to infect horses and, via them, humans.  Its name comes from the suburb of Brisbane where our main racetracks are located, and where it was first detected in 1994, taking the life of horse trainer Vic Rail and a number of horses.  This is where it gets emotional.

To some extent, the emotions are understandable.  Australians love their horses, and Hendra virus has been fatal to every one of the 50-odd horses known to have contracted it since 1994.  It's also very dangerous to humans, having led to the death of four out of the seven humans known to have contracted it.  This winter there have been more horses infected than ever before - properties in eight locations in Queensland are affected and ten horses and one dog have died so far, although no humans have yet tested positive.

Still, the scale of the problem seems to suggest a moderate response is most appropriate.  The distribution of the outbreaks suggests that this is not a spreading epidemic (except perhaps amongst the bats) so much as a series of incidents.  After all, ten horses is not that many.  Queensland Health and Biosecurity Queensland have control and testing procedures in place, and the State Government has allocated $6m to further research on the disease. 

Still, this is not enough for some people, and a number of local communities are demanding that their flying fox colonies be "moved on".  Queensland's pretend Opposition Leader Campbell Newman, who could well be Premier by this time next year, has promised to do just that.  I don't think Mr Newman has really thought this one through, so let me help him.

Flying foxes are highly sociable creatures and spend their day in huge colonies, with thousands of bats roosting side by side in trees.  At night they fan out in twos and threes, searching for fruit and flowers, and flying up to 50 km each night.  As drought and deforestation have taken their toll, more groups have set up camp in or near urban areas, where flowering plants are readily available.  Aside from the very occasional Hendra virus issue they are not really dangerous to humans, but they stink and make a lot of noise, so you wouldn't necessarily want to live too close. 

It's these that Mr Newman is promising to move on.  However, there are a number of problems with this.  First of all, colonies are not that easy to move.  Basically, you need to prevent them from roosting in their chosen locations.  This means you need to go out to their nesting sites in the early hours of the morning, making loud noises and perhaps setting off smoke bombs, to scare them away.  Bats are not strong in the intellectual department so you need to repeat this procedure quite a few times before they get the message.

All this is theoretically possible, but why would you?  The flying foxes thus scared away will, of course, roost somewhere else, most likely nearby.  From their new location, they will once again fly their 50km each night, spreading their viruses over much the same territory as they did before.  However, because they are more stressed, they will be more vulnerable to catching the disease and will excrete more.  In other words, you won't get rid of them but you will increase the chances of infection.

From here you can only sink further into absurdity.  To really remove the problem in a particular community, you will need to remove the creatures beyond their 50km limit.  If it is not your intention to kill them, you will need to select your new location carefully - somewhere with lots of flowering plants and no horses.  Off the top of my head I would think such locations were fairly rare.  Then of course, assuming you can find such a location, you would have to somehow get the flying foxes to it.  Option A - herding them - would seem a little impractical given that they don't fly in flocks and that any attempt to drive them in a particular direction will just scatter them.  Not to mention that they sleep during the day, so you would have to herd them at night. Option B - catching them and transporting them in cages - is also slightly comical.  Did I mention that they roost in trees, and can fly?  In addition, they have sharp teeth and as well as Hendra virus they carry another deadly disease known as bat lyssavirus which humans can catch by being bitten or scratched.  I guarantee that if you try to catch a flying fox, it will bite and scratch you.

So it would seem that the only option left to Mr Newman will then be to "cull" the bats, a handy euphemism for killing them.  Hopefully even Campbell Newman will consider this a little drastic, especially given that flying foxes are the chief agents for propogating various plant and tree species, spreading them in their faeces as they fly over their 50 km territories.  The destruction of not only our most prominent native bat, but our open forest ecosystems, would seem to be a huge price to pay to spare the lives of a dozen horses.

Still, it's something to keep up our sleeves for when the eventual US or European debt default sparks the next global financial crisis.  Governments looking for something to spend fiscal stimulus money on will find that we already have enough school halls.  What better way to spend the money in regional Australia than to employ armies of people to chase flying foxes from place to place?

(Flying Fox photos from Brad and Lynn's Field Photos.)

(And bugger me if he didn't go and do it!)