Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Why People Believe Weird Things

My atheist friend and occasional fellow blogger Roo told me I should read Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain  as part of my series on atheism.  While I wait for the lovely people in the Brisbane City Council library service to buy it and lend it to me (yes I am a cheapskate, and besides, I pay my rates!) I've been whetting my appetite with one of his earlier books, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition and other confusions of our time.

It's a little unfair in some ways to include Shermer in a series on atheism given that he makes it clear in this book that he is an agnostic.  Nonetheless, it's worth looking at the light he sheds on various belief systems and why they come into being. 

Shermer is something of a minor celebrity in the US, a regular guest on TV chat shows where he appears as the token skeptic in episodes about the various "weird things" he discusses in this book.  He has degrees in psychology and the history of science, but in fact he is a professional skeptic, editing his own magazine called Skeptic as well as writing for Scientific American, hosting a radio show and writing numerous books. 

These various encounters form the basis of this book, with chapters dealing with ESP, alien abduction, recovered memory, near death experiences, racial prejudice and the notion that a future supercomputer will bring about the resurrection.  There are also two longer sections, one dealing with young earth creationism and the other with Holocaust denial, bookended by some more general chapters about the art of skepticism and why people believe weird things. 

Of course, one man's weird is another man's normal, but by sticking largely to fringe beliefs Shermer is able to avoid offending too many people.  He also comes across as a gracious critic, ready to praise the believers when praise is due, and genuinely interested in and willing to explore the beliefs he debunks.  Dennett, Harris and Dawkins could learn a thing or two from him. 

The result is a lot more than an interesting romp through the outer reaches of the American psyche.  In the process he provides a guide to the scientific method as she is practiced.  His constant search is for verification, for evidence, for falsifiability.  People say they have been abducted by aliens.  Is there any evidence of these aliens apart from these people's testimonies?  People say there was no Holocaust.  How do they account for the converging threads of historical evidence that tell a consistent story of deliberate genocide?  People say they can read each others thoughts.  Does their ability to do so lie outside the statistical probability of a correct guess?  Everywhere we see behind his stories of individual beliefs the footprints of scientific method - the gathering of evidence, examination of possible explanations, testing of these explanations, repetition of experiments, peer review and accountability.  All of these, he says, are missing in the world of pseudoscience and pseudohistory.

Apparently, his response when asked "why should we believe you?" is invariably, "you shouldn't!" Of course he's picked easy targets and this inevitably makes him look smart.  Still because he's so open and engaging, I'm going to take him at his word.   So let me get to what I see as some questions posed by his version of rationality.

First of all, Shermer is very interested, as a psychologist, in the mental processes of belief.  He describes, for instance, the idea of "confirmation bias" - we automatically look for facts which confirm our already held views, and unconsciously filter out those that don't.  He also talks about the role played by images and ideas from our early training and wider culture.  Joe Firmage's aliens bear a remarkable resemblance to the angels that appear in the beliefs of the Mormon faith in which he was raised.  The appearance of other aliens matches that in early science fiction films.  And so it goes on.

What strikes me about this is the same thing that struck me about Dennett's discussion of memes.  Both writers seem to act as if these processes don't apply to themselves.  Those poor deluded people are subject to confirmation bias and unconcsious childhood images.  We, on the other hand, are scientific and rational. 

Following on from this is Shermer's persistent naturalist assumption.  This follows from what he calls "Hume's Maxim", taken from the words of the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume:  "...no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish".  This means that Shermer will explore all "natural" explanations for a phenomenon before he considers the "supernatural" ones.  Does this not strike you as a procedure wide open for "confirmation bias"?  Perhaps, perhaps not, but somehow he always seems to find the naturalistic explanation he seeks.

In this respect Shermer is, in general, highly conservative.  In any scientific question, he is likely to be on the side of the majority.  This, of course, means that he is likely to usually be right.  I couldn't help agreeing with him on the beliefs he discussed here - most of them seem highly unlikely to me.  The test of his method will come when he takes on something more controversial, something for which the evidence, or lack thereof, is not so clear-cut.  Then we will see....

PS - I did eventually get to read The Believing Brain and you can read my review here.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Michael Kirby's Love Story

Yesterdays Weekend Australian Magazine includes this moving extract from the soon-to-be-published memoirs of former High Court Judge Michael Kirby.  It tells the story of his lifelong partnership with Johan van Vloten - how they met, the early days of their relationship, his ongoing delight at finding love when he thought he was destined for a life of loneliness.

If Johan had been a woman there would be nothing remarkable in this tale, and it certainly wouldn't be the pre-publication extract.  If I remember rightly, none of the extracts from John Howard's book talked about his lifelong love for Janette.  Yet there is an undercurrent of pain in Kirby's telling.  In the 1970s (the pair met in 1969) it was illegal to be gay, and Kirby was a high profile lawyer and later a judge and the public face of law reform.  Their relationship stayed more or less secret until the late 1990s when social attitudes finally allowed them to come into the open.  Of course colleagues knew or at least suspected but as Kirby says, "don't ask, don't tell".

Here's what Kirby says of the relationship. 

He is a truly remarkable companion. Fortunate is a human being, straight or gay, who has such lifelong love. Evil are those who would deny such love to a fellow human being. God does not smile on such people.

No doubt, such a statement would make many Christians froth at the mouth.  Of course with moves in many countries to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, this is a hot topic amongst Christians.  While some insist that the Bible clearly condemns gay relationships, others from surprisingly conservative backgrounds suggest that it does no such thing.  Personally I would say that as a general rule if some people think the Bible clearly condemns something and others think it doesn't, then that probably means it doesn't.  After all, what else does "clearly" mean?

Leaving aside some items in the Mosaic law (given that Christians happily ignore most of that) there is only one Bible reference for us to argue about, which should in itself give us a hint about the priorities of the Biblical writers.  It's this one, from the first chapter of Romans.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

The immediately relevant section here is, of course, verses 26 and 27.  Paul certainly seems to be saying that same-sex relationships are a result of our estrangement from God.  Many - in fact most - Christians take this to be sufficient grounds for excluding people in same sex relationships from active ministry, and for encouraging gay people to live a life a celibacy if they can't change their orientation. 

Others believe it is not.  There are a few reasons for this.  One is that many Christians, like me, don't believe the Bible is inerrant.  Therefore we are not obliged as Christians to follow everything it says to the letter and are able to make judgements ourselves under the grace of God which may differ from those of Paul or other biblical writers. 

However, leaving this aside and accepting for the moment the authority of this passage, there is another way of reading it.  To do this, you would need to keep reading, because the very next thing Paul says at the beginning of the second chapter is this.

1 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?

It is easy for straight people to be judgemental about gay people.  Yet Paul has given us a long list.  Do we exclude greedy people from active ministry?  Do we exclude people who are subject to envy?  Do we exclude people who experience lust?  Do we exclude those who are arrogant, or who gossip?  Do we exclude those who disobey their parents?  Do we exclude people who are foolish?  Churches would be very quiet places!

We so often forget what Christian morality is all about.  Sure, we are trying to become better people, to overcome our faults, to live as God wants us to live.  But the operative word here is "trying".  If we think we are succeeding, Paul suggests, we should think again.  The church is the community of those who are seeking God's grace, not the community of those who are living a reformed life.

One of the reasons I think we treat same-sex relationships as different from things like envy and greed is that they seem black and white.  Envy sneaks up on us and just when we think we have beaten it, there it is worming its way back into our heart.  On the other hand, it's possible to say that you are either in a relationship or not.  Hence, the more or less standard position is that gays should be celibate.  From time to time, they will experience desire for someone of the same sex, just as a straight person will feel desire for someone who is not their wife or husband - but they must not act on it.

For those who say this, listen with empathy to one of Kirby's later statements and see if, as a straight person, you feel any differently.

I suppose that a life of celibacy would have its own rewards. Returning to a dark home of silence and takeaway meals would probably be quite adequate in many circumstances. A solitary meal would certainly allow the events of the day, the month, the year or life generally to be explored quietly and alone, in the crevices of the mind. Perhaps a cat or a dog could look up before returning to sleep, indifferent to the clattering of the home-comer, deep at night.

But for most human beings, that is not enough. It was not enough for me. It is not enough for most gays and lesbians.... Beyond the dance parties and the Mardi Gras, homosexual people are human souls searching for love and companionship. Searching for the true friend. Hoping against hope for someone who will welcome their return home and offer words and actions that immediately translate love into reality.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Not a Career Politician

Talk about turning a negative into a positive.  Ray Smith, the Labor candidate to become Brisbane's Lord Mayor next year, just had a flyer delivered to my letter box. 

First of all he tells us this.

Everywhere I go people are telling me they're fed up with costly toll tunnels that nobody uses.  Council isn't solving our traffic problems.  Despite all the wasted money, traffic is worse than ever.

Fair enough, but later on he tells us why we should vote for him.

My background is in business - I'm not a career politician.  I haven't sat around in Council for over 20 years like my opponent, instead 20 years ago I started a small business working for myself.  Today that business employs over 150 highly skilled locals.

In other words, unlike Graham Quirk, the long-standing Councillor who recently inherited the Lord Mayor's job when Campbell Newman stepped down to make his tilt at becoming president of Queensland, Ray Smith has no relevant experience.  While Councillor Quirk has been toiling away for the past two decades at running the Council with its 7,000 employees and billion dollar plus budget, Mr Smith has been running a small business.  This is why we should vote for him?

Speaking of those tunnels and the man who gave them to us, what was Mr Newman doing before he became Lord Mayor?  You guessed it, he was running a small business, and campaigning for the mayoralty on the basis that he wasn't a career politician.  How times change!

Perhaps Mr Smith wasn't aware of that because he was too busy running his business at the time.  Or perhaps he thinks we'll have forgotten.  Not likely, Mr Smith!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

"What shall it profit a man?"

I was generally a bit lukewarm about John Dickson's A Spectator's Guide to Jesus.  However, he did say something at got my attention.

"For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" is one of those biblical phrases that has made its way into our wider culture.  This means that it is often taken out of its context, even by Christians.  Whenever I have heard a sermon or a discussion on this verse, it is taken to mean something like, "what's the point of riches and power if you are going to end up in hell?  It's better to believe in Jesus even if that means giving up these things."  There is of course a certain amount of truth in this but there is much more to the story than that.

Here is the full passage it comes from, Mark 8:27-38 taken from the New International Version rather than the King James that you will most often hear quoted or misquoted.

27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

The Messiah or "anointed one", as understood by Peter and other first century Jews, was the promised descendent of King David, the new king who would rid the people of Israel of their foreign oppressors on the way to establishing his rule over all the nations.  The Messianic dream was a dream of world domination.  This is what Peter and the other disciples, and many in the crowd, either believed he was, or hoped he would become.

Jesus was very wary of this title, and you can see that here as he instructs his disciples not to talk about it.  This is not, as Stephan Huller likes to think, because he didn't claim to be the Messiah.  There were times when he clearly did.  Rather, it is because he believed those around him seriously misunderstood what a messiah would do. 

This is what lay behind both his sharp rebuke of Peter - "Get behind me, Satan!" - and his teaching to the crowd.  His followers had to be prepared to suffer, even to die a shameful death.  There would be no world domination under the Messiah Jesus, only death and shame.

This is the context in which he asked his rhetorical question: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  When he says "gain the whole world" he is not speaking metaphorically, he is speaking literally.  His central message to Israel was one of repentance.  They needed to set aside their hypocrisy, their exclusion of women, the poor and the "unclean", their hatred of Gentiles, their focus on appearance rather than substance.  What would be the point of a military campaign to dominate the world if those who dominated in God's name were no better than those who did so in Caesar's?

For me, this underlines the irony of subsequent events in church and world history.  In the first three centuries after Christ the church grew in the face of persecution and suffering.  The followers of Jesus did indeed literally have to take up their crosses.  Then Constantine changed the game by co-opting the church into his empire.  He waged war under the sign of the cross.  His successors made Christianity the official religion of their regime.  For the next fifteen centuries church and state went hand in hand throughout Europe.  Wars were waged in the name of the Prince of Peace, dissenters were tortured in the chambers of the Inquisition, popes made and broke kings for entirely political purposes. 

Christians gained the world.  But what happened to our souls?

Sunday, 18 September 2011

More Lives of Jesus 2: John Dickson

After the hilarious foolishness of Stephan Huller it's kind of calming to read a book about Jesus as sensible as John Dickson's A Spectator's Guide to Jesus: and introduction to the man from Nazareth.

John Dickson is a theologian and ancient historian, co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney, and has a shadow life as a gospel singer.  He is representative of the sort of moderate evangelicalism that permeates the Anglican church and many other mainstream protestant denominations here in Australia.  It would be hard to imagine a more orthodox commentator on the life of Jesus.

The first thing that stands out about Dickson, more than any other writer I have read on the Life of Jesus, is his transparency about his sources.  Indeed there is a 100-page companion volume to A Spectator's Guide entitled The Christ Files which provides a handy summary of the various ancient sources - both Christian and non-Christian - for the life of Jesus.  He is also up front about his approach to these sources, making use of what he terms "mainstream" scholarship (and his "main stream" is quite broad) while largely ignoring both highly skeptical scholarship like that of Robert Funk, and outright apologetics.  

A Spectator's Guide takes these sources and uses them to provide an introduction to Jesus in his times.  Twelve brief chapters deal in turn with Jesus as teacher, healer, embodiment of the nation of Israel, Christ or Messiah, judge, friend, replacement for the Jerusalem temple, saviour, new Adam, Caesar, God and servant.  If you knew nothing about Christianity you would not only come away from this book with a much clearer understanding, you would come away thinking that maybe the faith is not so nutty after all.  Dickson is very careful not to overclaim on his evidence, but is clear about his own stance as an orthodox believer and presents a highly orthodox interpretation of the data.

It would be unfair to ask too much of an introductory book like this.  In 160 pages you have to drastically simplify a very complex set of information and analysis, and Dickson does this with great aplomb.  Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out a few things.

The first is that although he is very conscientous in citing his sources, he makes no attempt to evaluate them.  For example, he quotes Tacitus's brief description of Christians, written in the late first or early second century, as an example of early non-Christian corroboration of some key details in the Gospels.  However, he does not address the question of how we should interpret this reference.  Where did Tacitus get his information from?  Why does he report it in this way?  In fact, it seems that Tacitus is not really that interested in Christians and even less in Jesus, who he calls Christ, indicating that his information comes ultimately from Christians.  Rather, he is telling a story about the emperor Nero, the point of which that his cruelty was so horrific that it even made people feel sympathy towards the despised followers of Christ.

This is even more evident when he comes to discuss the Christian accounts of Jesus.  While he quite rightly suggests that these are by far the richest sources of historical information about Jesus, he does not attempt to assess their value as historical documents.  For instance, while he alludes to the multiplicity of accounts, he makes no attempt to address the different perspectives and emphases of the writers of the four Gospels and of Paul, whose writings he uses freely as the earliest Christian writings we have.  Hence, although he knows better, the New Testament accounts are presented as if they were one account.  The assumption that they can and should be harmonised is not far from the surface. 

Which brings me to my second point.  Much as he appears to claim otherwise, it is hard to read this as anything other than a work of apologetics.  He is careful not to claim too much.  For instance, he is clear that the documents only demonstrate that the early Christians believed Jesus performed miracles - whether we believe the same is a matter of philosophical choice or perhaps (although he doesn't use the word) of faith.  Nonetheless, in his moderate way he makes a clear and compelling case for an orthodox Christian interpretation of the data.  Dissenting voices, if they are heard at all, are extremely muted.

He is also very solidly evangelical.  He is pre-occupied with the traditional evangelical issues of sin and personal redemption, expressed in an individual rather than social way.  Hence, while he wants his readers to be disturbed by Jesus, he misses some very disturbing things.  For instance, although he devotes a chapter to the way in which the rhetoric of the Gospels deliberately adopts the terminology used by the Roman Empire about the Caesars, his reflection on this is thoroughly individualistic, asserting Jesus' claims over "my finances, my career, my politics, my sex life, my leisure, my ambitions and my family".  Yet if the claim to be a greater Lord than Ceasar is not primarily public and political what is it?  It seems Dickson does not notice this challenge to his own individualism.  Nor, in his reflection on Jesus as the "friend of sinners", does he really get to grips with the startling way Jesus redefines the concept of "sinner".

There is a lot to like about this book, and if you are looking for a simple introduction to Jesus you could hardly do better.  But for me his Jesus is a little too tame, a little too 21st century, a little too mainstream.  Dickson's caution becomes Jesus' caution.  Once you have read this book and grasped the basics, move on.  Read NT Wright or Albert Nolan, or even Marcus Borg, and see just how upsetting Jesus really can be.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

More Lives of Jesus 1: The "Real" Messiah

While writing my earlier reviews of the Lives of Jesus, I realised that my reading was getting a little dated - almost nothing after 1995.  So it's time to do something about that - starting with Stephan Huller's The Real Messiah: The Throne of St Mark and the True Origins of Christianity.

Apart from the title, two things about this book let us know immediately that we are reading a work of pseudo-history.  The first is the biographical note, which informs us that after graduating with a degree in philosophy, Huller pursued a career in the circus.  The second is the point on Page 2 where he cites The Da Vinci Code as evidence of a groundswell of awareness that something is wrong with the traditional view of Christianity.

The rest of the book does not disappoint.  All the tricks of the pseudohistorical trade are here - characters with multiple names, coded messages, fortuitous discoveries of previously hidden evidence, and of course the inevitable Catholic cover-up.  Along with this fun is a vague and slip-shod use of sources, gigantic logical leaps thinly disguised by the repeated use of the word "undoubtedly", and a card-house of speculation, inference and circular logic.

What emerges, as far as I can tell from his turgid prose and tortuously roundabout telling of the story, is that Jesus had virtually nothing to do with the beginning of Christianity.  Jesus was a humble prophet who repeatedly affirmed that he was not the Messiah.  The Messiah is identified instead as Marcus Agrippa, last of the Herodian kings, in Huller's telling born around 29 AD and living and ruling as a client king in Roman Palestine until around 100 AD. 

Agrippa makes multiple appearances in the gospel story, under various names.  He is the Apostle John, Mark the evangelist and Barabbas who was released prior to Jesus' crucifixion.  He makes a coded appearance as the risen Christ, with the "true" meaning of the resurrection stories revealed as Agrippa's ascension to the messianic throne.  Even Jesus' death is reinterpreted not as the "Lamb of God" dying for all of us, but as the ram, sacrificed in place of "Isaac" (aka Agrippa) to allow the messianic project to continue.  Incidentally, to make this all possible Jesus' death is also redated (without any explanation) to 37 CE, at which point the eight-year-old Agrippa is just about plausible as an active participant in the story.

As far as I can tell, the rest of the tale tells how Agrippa, as well as being a Roman client king, made himself the head of a Jewish mystery cult, encoded in an artefact known as the Throne of St Mark (generally dated around 500 CE, but that doesn't seem to bother Huller) and in the original (now lost, of course) versions of Mark's gospel.  Huller's rather strange view is that there was originally only one gospel (written of course by Marcus Agrippa aka Mark the Evangelist) which was split into four and substantially altered by the Roman theologian Irenaeus in around 170 CE for reasons which are incredibly confusing.

Anyway, enough of this nonsense!  I won't bore you with Huller's tortuous descriptions of the Throne of St Mark, his mangling of New Testament and early church history, his speculations about Isis and Horus, and all the other odd ideas he manages to cram into this one book.  I'm tempted to wonder why he needed Jesus in his story at all.  If he had left him to be crucified at the usual date around 30 CE he could have told a fascinating story about Agrippa anyway.  Could it be that such a book would never sell? 

Which leads me to another thought, prompted by my recent reading of Karen Armstrong's The Case for God.  If for some weird reason we were to accept Huller's version of events, then Irenaeus's invention of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a work of incredible genius.  His Jesus gives us an ethic of compassion and inclusion, a vision of justice and non-violence, backed up by his willingness to die and fortified by the hope of his resurrection.

By contrast, what does the Messiah Agrippa offer us?  A client king of the Roman Emperors, active in the destruction of Jerusalem, plotting and scheming to preserve his position through the reigns of ten different Ceasars.  A self-serving religious syncretism designed to cement his place in the hearts of cosmopolitan Jews and Samaritans while avoiding the ire of his Roman overlords.  A saviour who does not save, a God-king who does not rule, a set of ciphers hiding a message that, when revealed, tells you nothing.  This story may have obsessed Huller for 20 years, but I'd rather pass.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Letter to Julia Gillard

The following is a slightly edited version of a letter I sent to my local member and copied to Ms Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

The recent High Court decision preventing the government from sending recent boat arrivals to Malaysia is a good opportunity for your government to rethink your approach to asylum seekers.

It’s time to accept that the policy of mandatory detention is an expensive failure. In the two decades in which it has been in place, it has done nothing to stop boat arrivals. At the same time it has a massive cost in a number of different ways.

It is costly financially – I understand it costs around $1b per year to manage Australia’s current asylum seeker system, with the majority of this funding the detention centres. That would pay for a lot of resettlement services!

It is costly in human terms, in the trauma inflicted on the detainees themselves, particularly as centres become more crowded and longer term detainees become more stressed. This trauma comes on top of the original danger that drove them from their homeland.

It is costly to the resettlement process. Given that the majority of detainees are eventually resettled in Australia, it is imperative that they develop a love of their new homeland and feel welcome and wanted here. Yet if their first experience of our country is a traumatic period of detention, they will always carry a certain ambivalence towards our community and this will make it harder for them to feel at home and commit to their new country.

It is costly to all of us in moral terms. Since 1992 we have seen a gradual escalation in the stringency of our response, as we try to toughen the deterrence factor to the point where it will actually work. Each step in this escalation makes us crueller, less compassionate, less able to see asylum seekers as people. Ultimately it will only work if our response to asylum seekers is worse than the despotic regimes they are fleeing. Is that what we want to become?

It is politically costly to your government. It turns what should be a good news story into bad news.  Thousands of refugees have been settled in our community, and almost all of them are valued community members who make a positive contribution to our society. Yet instead of these stories being front and centre, coverage of the issue is dominated by the zero sum game of detention and deterrence. You will never win that battle and you need to stop trying to fight on that ground.

Asylum seekers should be allowed to live in the community while their claims are assessed. They should be provided with financial support and allowed to work or study. Your $1b budget would cover the costs of this temporary community settlement, even allowing for an increase in arrivals and the cost of tracking down occasional absconders. You might even be able to up the resources for processing claims and cut down the absurdly long waiting times. Those who are eventually granted refugee status would be already well on the way to resettlement. Those who are not would be deported just the same, but be spared the cruelty in the meantime.

Certainly this might result in more boats coming and you would be criticised, but you are being criticised anyway. You have nothing to lose. At least instead of stories about bulging detention facilities, riots, fires and mental health problems the stories would be about ordinary people living in ordinary homes, trying to rebuild their lives.

I know your government has invested a lot of political capital in the deterrence approach, but it is clearly not working. You have the chance to make a real difference. Don’t blow it.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Case for God

I have heard that while authors provide the content for their books, publishers choose the titles.  Karen Armstrong's The Case for God might be an example of this.  The title sounds like she is defending God against atheism.  In fact, the book has a good deal to say about religion, not much about atheism (although the advent of atheism is clearly part of its context) and is fairly ambivalent about the word "God".

Karen Armstrong has written widely on religious subjects and has a strong bent for comparative religion.  After a stint in a Catholic religious order as a young adult, she initially abandoned faith altogether before coming back to a more open and inclusive spirituality, embracing lessons and practices from a variety of sources in a manner reminiscent of Joseph Campbell.

The Case for God  covers similar territory to Alister McGrath's  The Twilight of Atheism, but it both travels back further and delves more deeply into the religious background to the question.  Armstrong is also less orthodox than McGrath and more willing to critique Christian belief and practice. 

The book is in two parts.  In the first, she provides a brief overview of the history of religion up to the end of the Middle Ages, focusing mainly on Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism and Islam.  She mainly uses this to outline some key ideas gleaned from pre-modern religion. 
  • She highlights the distinction made in various religious streams of thought between logos (the capacity for reason and logical thought) and mythos (the contemplation of mysteries and spiritual stories which are beyond rationality).  Logos is the province of science and reason, while mythos is the province of religion.  The two are not seen as in conflict, but complement one another and serve different purposes.
  • She also highlights the way our idea of "belief" differs from the pre-modern idea.  Where for us it means an intellectual assent to a set of concepts, for pre-moderns it meant commitment.  Before the modern age, she says, all religions stressed that religious doctrine could not be divorced from its practice, ritual and moral, and in the absence of this practice would seem lifeless and trivial.
  • Finally, she highlights the idea of limits to our knowledge.  Through the eyes of medieval saints like St Denys, Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart she illustrates how they taught that we can know nothing about God for certain, and that all our statements about God must be matched by the denial of the sufficiency of those statements.
All this is background for the second part of her book which outlines the effects of the modern mindset on religious belief.  It's hard to summarise, but what she charts in essence is the demise of mythos and the triumph of logos.  It starts out with Descartes believing he has identified (by divine revelation!) an incontrovertable logical proof of God's existence.  Alongside this type of thinking is Isaac Newton's belief that God was a necessary part of his groundbreaking theory of the cosmos, since inert matter required a First Cause or Prime Mover to set it in motion.  Finally we see William Paley's argument for design dominating Christian apologetics in the English-speaking world.

In Armstrong's view, these developments impoverished religion in a number of ways.  They made believers think they understood God, and hence became a form of idolatry.   To see God as a Supreme Being is to see him (or "it" as she prefers to say) as essentially like ourselves, as just another something.  Our sense of reverence and awe are replaced by a kind of smug certainty.  The practice of religion is replaced by a cold set of logical propositions.  This is religion without the power  to transform.

It was also religion setting itself up for a fall.  The science changed.  Darwin identified how life could develop without a designer or a grand plan.  Einstein showed how the cosmos could spin without a hand to spin it.  The comfortable arguments of the early moderns fell down around their ears, and their heirs had no mythos to fall back on.

At the end of the book Armstrong charts three movements which have grown from this set of developments.  The first two she critiques.  Fundamentalism, she says, attempts to preserve this "scientific" modernist view of religion despite all evidence to the contrary.  It insists on a version of literal, objective truth for everything in its chosen holy book which is a long way from historic Christianity or Islam.  Scientific atheism a la Dawkins, Dennett and Harris springs from the same mindset, opposing religious fundamentalism with scientific fundamentalism just as exclusive and intolerant.  These opposing fundamentalisms fight it out in a spiralling competition of extremes.

However, she also traces a groundswell of unknowing in a variety of places - in the post-modern philosophy of Heidegger and Derrida, in the theology of Bultmann, Tillich and Vattimo, and in the openness and wonder of physicists like Paul Davies. 

This, then, is the burden of her message.  We need to abandon our desire for certainty and our idolatrous, rationalistic vision of God in order to recover a working spirituality.  We need to understand once again that religion is about immersion in ritual and contemplation, about symbols which help us make sense of our human condition, and about the practice of compassion.  This need not come from a single, authorised source.  It is as likely to come from Buddhists or atheists as from Christians.  Wherever it comes from, we should embrace it, learn from it and live it.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Jane Eyre


Lois and I went to see the new movie version of Jane Eyre for my birthday.  I don't need to provide a spoiler alert, do I?

What a good movie adaptation will do for a classic story - and this is a good one - is to strip away a lot of the incidental details and show the skeleton of the story in sharp relief.  What we see is a story that, while never losing its focus on Jane as its heart, is structured around two interlocking love triangles.


If there is a more spiritually charged set of love triangles in English literature then I can't recall it.  What is at stake here is not mere romance, or fortune, but people's souls.

Jane lives through hard times before finally arriving at Thornfield House as a governess and falling in love with her master, Edward Rochester.  Although strange, and set against the background of creaky gothic horror, the romance seems set to end happily until the inevitable romance-tale hiatus.  Edward is already married to poor mad Bertha, the spectre who is kept secure in a secret room at Thornfield.

From here Jane has a choice.  Edward urges her to become his mistress, and she longs to say yes.  After all, the conventional world of morality has done her little good.  What claim has it over the passionate uniting of their spirits?  Yet her conscience will not allow it.  She refuses, and runs.

This decision almost kills her but it ultimately brings her a kind of peace, as she is rescued by St John Rivers and his sisters and given freedom, a loving family and rewarding work.  Yet when St John asks her to marry him it is not out of love, it is a request to give up passion, to sacrifice all for the sake of duty and service.  Once again she refuses this offer - she is indeed willing to serve and be dutiful, but not if in the process she must give up passion.  Ultimately, her patience and refusal to settle for less are rewarded as she is mysteriously called back to Edward's side, to find him blinded but also widowed.  Their marriage can take place on her terms, with a clear conscience.  Passion and righteousness can share the same heart.

In the background to this story is Edward's own love triangle.  On the one hand he has Bertha, who represents for him darkness, chaos, the evil we hide in our deepest selves.  He cannot love her, she does not love him, yet he also can't disown her.  She is his responsibility, and they are bound together for good or ill.

Jane comes as an angel of light, or as the fairy queen. He longs for her innocence and simplicity without understanding that they are won through suffering. In the attempt to possess them  he almost destroys her - how could she be an angel of light and yet become his mistress?  Doing the right thing is at least as costly for him as it is for Jane, perhaps more so.  Bertha comes close to destroying him three times - once when she nearly burns him to death, once when he almost tricks Jane into marrying him, and finally when she burns Thornfield to the ground.  The dangers of uncontrolled passion are to the fore, and while Jane must pay the price for her righteousness before she can enjoy her passion, he must do the reverse, paying for his passion before he can experience the peace of righteousness.

The final scene in the film says it all.  I can't remember the exact words now, but as Jane holds his hand and he realises it's her, Edward says, "I fear that I am dreaming."  Jane replies, "Wake up, then!"  It's as if Charlotte Bronte, and director Cary Fukunaga, are saying to us, "Don't settle for half a life.  Don't give up passion to do what is right, don't violate your conscience for the sake of passion.  You can have both - if you are prepared to pay the cost."