Thursday, 25 April 2013

Anzac Day

It's very interesting to see what's happened to Anzac Day over my lifetime.


I attended a lot of Anzac Day ceremonies in my childhood.  On April 24 there would be a memorial service at school and we would all buy Anzac badges.  Then on the day itself my scout group would gather early in the morning with the other marchers at the Sunnybank shopping centre on Station Road.  Led by local war veterans, the various organisations would march - or rather stroll - down Station Road, turn left into Lister St (passing my house on the way, where Dad would wave from the verandah) and attend a short memorial service at the Municipal Hall.  Someone would play the Last Post, we would sing Lest We Forget and someone would give a short address.  I don't remember what they said, because I was always distracted by the honour boards listing the names of the local men who died in the two World Wars and whose names also graced our local streets.

I stopped attending these events in my early teens and haven't been to one since except to chauffeur my children.  When I stopped, the day was very much on the wane.  The veterans of the World Wars were diminishing, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars had soured my generation's views on war in general. 

In high school we studied Alan Seymour's play The One Day of the Year, which captures the feeling of those times brilliantly.  Written in 1960, it portrays the conflict between working class war veteran Alf Cook and his university student son Hugh.  For Alf, Anzac Day is the "the one day of the year", the day when he and his mates are honoured and the values of mateship and the bravery of the soldiers is celebrated.  Hugh, however, has co-authored an article in the University paper criticising the day.  While for Alf the Battle of Gallipoli is a symbol of Australian bravery and military glory, Hugh has read enough history to understand that is was a huge military stuff-up.  But the conflict is wider than that.  What, after all, is the value of war and military glory?

I was with Hugh all the way, and still am.  I respect what Alf and his contemporaries did in the wars, but I see war as a cause for mourning to be avoided at all costs, not something glorious to be celebrated.  Back then the majority in my generation seemed to agree. The overwhelming danger of nuclear destruction swamped ideological differences.  No-one replaced the ageing veterans in the marches, fewer kids attended, numbers and interest dwindled, the status of the day as a national holiday was questioned.  Anzac Day seemed destined to become an historical curiosity.

The tide started to turn in the late 1990s.  No doubt there are many complex causes for this change, including the end of the Cold War, but a watershed moment was the 1999 campaign in East Timor.  This was Australia's most significant military engagement since Vietnam, and it was everything Vietnam was not.  It was close to our borders.  It was led by Australian troops, instead of us following in the footsteps of our American patrons.  The cause of Timorese independence, backed by the vote to break from Indonesia, had widespread support across the political spectrum. 

It also helped that the campaign was highly successful.   The Australian troops quickly overwhelmed their much weaker opponents (bandits left behind to make trouble by the withdrawing Indonesian military), provided security for peaceful elections, assisted in rebuilding efforts, and generally succeeded in everything they attempted.  The media was flooded with images of Australian soldiers playing soccer with Timorese kids, building playgrounds and smiling, always smiling.  It is no accident that General Peter Cosgrove, who led that campaign, is still Australia's most recognisable military figure years into his retirement.

Subsequent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been so successful, but the military heirarchy has learned the secret of projecting a positive image.  They understand it is not enough to be highly trained fighters.  Soldiers have to be seen to be ordinary people, motivated to do good.  In conflict zones, they are as often portrayed doing community work as they are shooting or being shot at.  At home, the military has become a conspicuous presence in disaster zones, helping clean up after flood and fire.  Our military heroes - two soldiers have been awarded the Victoria Cross in recent years - are used as faces in the marketing war, giving motivational speeches to footballers, gracing the stage at official functions and being freely available for media interviews.

As a result Anzac Day has become a bigger event than it ever was in my youth.  Marches, led by serving soldiers and ageing veterans, are swelled with thousands of families and televised amidst breathless commercial TV journalism.  The annual dawn service at Gallipoli itself has become a huge tourist drawcard and Australians sometimes talk as if we, not the Turks, own that ground.  (For the record, we lost that battle).  Footballers pay their respects to "our soldiers" in annual Anzac Day contests graced with military bands, flag-waving and balls ceremonially delivered by military helicopter.  The day has become a full on, 3-D multimedia experience.

It's a very impressive marketing effort, but I'm still not buying.  War is still hell.  Timor aside, our military adventures in the 21st century show that global problems are difficult to solve by force.  The rapid global re-armament since 1998 has made us less safe, not more so.  When we see soldiers marching in our streets, followed by mobs of people waving flags, we should feel anxious and afraid, not happy and secure.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Rolf Harris?

I don't really feel shocked when I hear about cases of sexual abuse in the church.  I feel deeply sad for the victims and angry at the perpetrators, and I feel betrayed when church leaders protect the abusers at the expense of their victims.  But I don't really feel shocked.  I've worked in child protection.  I know the statistics.  It is pretty much inevitable that somewhere in any big insitution there will be abuse going on.  When I read about it, my expectations are merely proved correct.


Rolf Harris is another matter altogether.  With Rolf it's personal.  He was the first singer I ever loved.  Before I discovered pop music, he was my number one musical taste.  I had some of his records, and watched his show on TV. 

His songs were also the first I ever performed in public.  I sang one of them at a scout concert and our leader (who despite the stereotypes was not the least bit abusive) was so taken with it that he got me to perform at various functions over the next couple of years.  I didn't do the obvious songs - "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport", or "Court of King Caractacus" - and I certainly couldn't don the fake extra leg for "Jake the Peg".  Instead I sang songs from an obscure collection of amusing conservation-themed songs my family owned, called Rolf Harris Sings for Survival.  My scoutmaster's favourite was called "The Kangaroo Catchers" which doesn't even appear to have made it onto the internet.

The thing about Rolf is that he's never been a particularly gifted singer, but he was (and still is) a fabulous family entertainer.  He never does anything you'd worry about taking your kids to, but the adults have a great time as well.  He sings funny songs, tells corny jokes, plays odd instruments like the wobble board, and does those wonderful join-the-dots paintings where it seems like he's painting nothing and then the last few brush strokes reveal an illustration of the song he's singing or the story he's telling.  In a more serious vein, he was responsible for introducing Australian folk songs to a global audience in much the same way Pete Seeger did for the American tradition, although without the left-wing politics.

Along with all this is a down to earth personality which makes you feel like he's your funny uncle rather than a superstar entertainer.  Residents of small Australian towns where he has performed confirm this is not a stage act - he really is that nice.

How could this harmless and much loved entertainer - and my childhood hero - be guilty of child sexual abuse?  Friends and neighbours clearly share the widespread disbelief.  News reports are full of this kind of stuff.

A furious neighbour shouted to the cameras "he didn't do it. And if he did it doesn't matter." Another said "he's done nothing wrong and you should be ashamed of yourselves".  One visitor came to drop a note in Harris' letterbox and said afterwards: "he's a wonderful man and it's a load of baloney."

It's quite possible they're right.  He may be falsely accused.  I certainly hope so.  I'd rather not have to reassess the meaning of my childhood passions at the age of 51.

But it's also possible they're wrong, and if so it certainly does matter.  People who abuse children are not a species apart.  Jimmy Savile may look like an abuser from head to toe with his wild hair, odd glasses and weird persona, but don't let this lull you into thinking you would recognise an abuser if you met one.  Abusers can be nice, everyday people.  They can do lots of good.  Their public adulation can be well earned.

Seeing this adulation just makes their victims' grief that much more bitter.  Abuse victims are entitled to have their pain vindicated and its authors brought to account

If the price I have to bear for that is to have my own childhood tainted in a small way, then so be it.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Paul on Slavery: Part 2

In Part 1 I provided a quick summary of what Paul says about slavery.  How should we understand this message as 21st century Christians?


For 21st century readers of the Bible, our immediate, visceral reaction to Paul's words on slavery is to say, "Why didn't he just come out clearly and say that slavery is wrong and slaves should be freed?  Why was he so circumspect?  Surely loving people who have been enslaved must entail giving them their freedom!"  Many devoted Christians down the ages have agreed.  The emancipation movement in 18th century England was famously led by evangelical Christians who saw the slave trade as an unmitigated evil.

I suspect the answer lies in the problem of legalism.  The main danger of legalism, as identified by Jesus and Paul, is hypocrisy.  If we have obeyed the letter of the law, we see ourselves as righteous even if we actually do great harm.  This is precisely the danger in relation to slavery.

Under current Australian law, if the police bust up a sex slavery operation, the women freed as a result will be given humanitarian visas which entitle them to income and housing support and access to education or employment.  In this situation, freeing them is an unmitigated good, and should be done at every possible opportunity. 

However prior to the mid-2000s if these women did not have valid visas (and most don't) they would simply be deported as illegal immigrants.  Hence despite being victims of a serious crime, they would be treated as criminals themselves and sent straight back into the risky situation that led to their enslavement in the first place.  As a nation we did what the law required and freed the slaves, but did we actually improve their lives?  Or did we just add arrest and deportation to their already considerable suffering?

The history of emancipation in the USA tells a similar tale.  Slavery was one of the key issues in the Civil War, and after the Union victory slaves were given their freedom.  I think African Americans are pretty unanimous that this was a good thing.  However, what was the immediate impact of this legal change on the newly freed slaves?  They were still not equal before the law, they were segregated in their own ghettos, had limited access to education and employment and were subject to open discrimination and widespread race hatred. 

Some were able to succeed in their lives despite these barriers.  For others the picture was not so rosy.  Many just continued as poorly paid employees of their former owners and little about their lives actually changed.  Others were not rehired after emancipation and, in the economic malaise that followed the Civil War, were unable to find work.  Forced into petty crime to survive, many were re-enslaved through the criminal justice system, sentenced for crimes of poverty and then released into the custody of wealthy white people who would put them to work in their plantations or factories. 

This problem bedevils attempts to combat slavery around the globe.  Current efforts to close down the red light districts in Surabaya, Indonesia's second city, are a case in point.  Here's what the manager of a women's shelter near a recently closed area says.

The result of the closing of the localisation (i.e. the red light district) is that the prostitutes are operating wildly, not localised, and in unofficial rental rooms, so it's not at all good. Closing it is not the best way.  We know that prostitution is slavery. There are a lot of issues that need to be sorted out before they are released to the community - not just their health problems but their mental mindset.

The policy of closing the districts is driven by more than just the welfare of the women.  Yet as the shelter manager says, it is almost certain many of the women are slaves and shutting down the industry should help them.  Yet if it is mishandled nothing will change for them and it could even make their lives worse as they are transferred from plain sight in the red light district to invisibility in an illicit trade.  To her credit the Mayor of Surubaya seems aware of these issues and is trying to proceed carefully with a progressive shut down, and education and employment programs for the women.  All power and success to her!

What has all this to do with Paul?  Well, he was writing in an environment where slavery was firmly entrenched in the social fabric.  Possibly one third of the Roman Empire's population was enslaved and slaves carried out most of the menial tasks.  Simply freeing a slave, with no assets, few saleable skills and no guarantee of work, would ensure they would starve or be re-enslaved by someone else.  Christians who released their slaves in this legalistic manner would be little better than the Roman statesman Cato, who said that slaves should be sold when they were too old to work as it was wasteful to keep feeding them when they produced nothing.

Paul's ethic is much tougher, and requires slave owners to do much more.  They are to see their slaves as brothers and sisters, people who they have an obligation to serve, to love as they love themselves.  Certainly it is better to be free than to be a slave, but Christians are not to use this as an excuse for evading their responsibility for one another.  Slave owners have an obligation of service to their slaves, an ongoing responsibility to them as fellow servants of the same Master.

This, I think, is why Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon.  In anywhere other than Philemon's household, Onesimus was a renegade and an outlaw.  As a runaway slave, his life was forfeit.  Paul could have helped him to escape again and take his chances, although as a prisoner himself his opportunities to help would have been limited.  Perhaps if he had less confidence in Philemon he may have done so for a man he had come to love as a son. 

Instead, he did the one thing that could guarantee Onesimus's safety - he asked (in fact, demanded) that Philemon protect him and accept him as a brother.  Onesimus was to be integrated into the Christian community in Colosse, where Philemon is thought to have lived.  In this community "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."  Onesimus was to gain not merely his legal liberty, but full membership of a loving supportive community under the sponsorship of its leaders.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating.  Christians often reject situation eithics because it is too lax.  This is a misunderstanding.  Situation ethics is much harder than legalism.  The Sermon on the Mount is much more difficult to implement than the Torah.  This is because it requires us to think, and to take responsibility.  It requires us to understand the consequences of our actions, to care for the wellbeing of others rather than just our own righteousness.  It requires us not simply to free slaves, but to make them family.

Paul on Slavery: Part 1

Reading The Good Book has reminded me about the issue of slavery.  One of the more frequent complaints atheists and others make against Christianity is that the Bible, and particularly Paul, seems to support the ownership of slaves.  After all, doesn't Paul say "slaves, obey your masters"?

The New Atheists say many silly and ill-informed things about Christianity, but this is not one of them.  They are raising a serious issue, so I thought it was worth a serious answer.  I'm afraid the result will be a rather long post which for the sake of the blog format I will post in two parts (Part 2 is here).  Even then I will only just scrape the surface.

Lest you think this is a dry exercise in ancient history bear in mind that human rights organisations estimate 27 million people are currently enslaved around the world and somewhere between 300 and 1,000 women are trafficked into Australia every year, mostly to work in the underground sex trade.

I'll get back to the 21st century in the second post, but firstly to Paul.  The foundation for Pauline ethics is found in Romans 13:8-10. 

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul, like Jesus, was vehemently opposed to Pharisaic legalism, which saw the Law as an immutable set of instructions which must be followed to the letter.  Hence, the specific instructions in Paul's letters should not be read as laws in this sense.  Instead, they need to be seen as specific attempts to guide his followers as to what love demanded in their situation.  Our task is not to obey them blindly, but to use them to help us answer the same question in our own situation.

Paul's letters include seven specific references to slavery.  The first is found in Galatians 3:28.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

This clarifies, for readers who may have been in doubt, that the ethic of love applies equally to slaves and their masters.  God makes no distinction between them.  There is no excuse for treating one differently to the other.

Then there are six passages which include more detailed instructions about behaviour.  First, the one that includes the offending words appears in different forms in two places, Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-4:1, and also in partial form in 1 Timothy 6:1-2 and Titus 2:9-10.  I will look at the version in Ephesians.  The instruction about slaves and masters appears as part of a set of instructions about how people should treat one another within a Christian household - husbands and wives, parents and children, slaves and masters.  The underlying context is that both slaves and masters are Christians and they are being addressed together.

The introduction to this section, in 5:21, says "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."  This is is a general introduction which applies to all parties in all three sets of relationships, and ties this passage back to the one in Romans.  Being subject to one another is equivalent to treating one another with love.  Then there is the specific instruction, first to slaves.

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

This is an incredibly difficult command, because it asks slaves to obey their masters not simply as a matter of form but from the heart, as a matter of love.  Slaves are being asked to love their Christian masters.  But then there is the counterpart instruction to slave owners, which needs to be read alongside the one to slaves.

9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

If the command to slaves was difficult, this may just be even more so.  Masters are being asked not simply to be fair to their slaves, but to serve them and be subject to them.  The legal relationship is turned on its head. 

This is a radical departure not only from Roman practice but from previous Jewish teaching.  The apocryphal book of Sirach says "Yoke and thong will bow the neck, and for a wicked slave there are racks and tortures....if he does not obey, make his fetters heavy."  Paul will have none of that.  Instead, he seeks to transform the relationship into one between equals.  Both are to serve one another, recognising that they have the same Master in heaven and are equally accountable.

So why doesn't Paul take the logical next step, and command masters to free their slaves?  I'll come back to this in Part 2, but first the other two passages.  The next one is 1 Corinthians 7:21-24.  Unlike the Ephesians passage, this one is addressed to individuals and it doesn't assume that all parties involved are Christian.  The context is a series of instructions the overall theme of which is that people should serve God wherever they find themselves.

21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.  22 For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.

To me this, and not the Ephesians passage, presents the greatest difficulty.  Part of the problem is the ambiguity of the Greek in the second half of v21.  The NRSV which I am using here sounds like it is saying slaves shouldn't accept their freedom even if it's offered to them.  The NIV, in the other hand, translates it "if you can gain your freedom, do so".  I am no Greek scholar but from my reading the NIV's interpretation is most widely believed to be correct, and it is certainly more consistent with the end of Verse 23 - "do not become slaves of human masters". 

This is a complex message, but I would suggest Paul is saying this: Slavery does not define who you are.  You are set free in Christ, even if your present situation makes that seem a distant reality.  Although you are a slave, you can still serve God where you are. But at the same time, slavery is not God's ultimate design for humanity.  If you can get your freedom, do so.  Don't seek slavery if you are not already a slave, because you belong to Christ.  Paul accepts that his followers can't always change their social situation as slaves, and are powerless to change the Roman laws, but slaves are just as much able to serve God as anyone else.

The final passage is Paul's short letter to his friend Philemon.  The main purpose of this letter is to request (or rather, courteously demand) that Philemon forgive and accept back his runaway slave Onesimus, who has somehow ended up with Paul in his imprisonment.  Runaway slaves in the Roman empire were subject to the harshest possible penalties, including death, torture, being worked to death in the salt mines or chained in the galleys of battleships.  All this, however, was at the discretion of their owners, since legally slaves were their property.  Hence, Paul is asking Philemon to exercise his prerogative and show mercy.  But he is also asking a whole lot more.

15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, 16 no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

This is a personal illustration of the general instruction in Ephesians.  Paul has sent Onesimus back to his master, at the risk of dire punishment.  But he is also instructing Philemon to transform the relationship.  Not only is he to regard Onesimus as his "beloved brother", he is told to "welcome him as you would welcome me."  This is a huge ask for Philemon, because Paul has politely but firmly reminded Philemon that he has the right to command him, and that Philemon owes Paul his life.  In other words, like the Ephesian slave owners he is being asked to serve Onesimus, rather than merely accept his continued service with good grace.

So, this is a quick overview of what Paul says.  Part 2 talks about how we should understand this message in the 21st century.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The Good Book


When I asked the question a few weeks ago about atheist world views, my relative and favourite atheist Roo referred me to AC Grayling's The Good Book: A Secular Bible. 

AC Graying was until recently Professor of Philosophy at London University, and is a prominent advocate of secular humanism which he equates with atheism.  The purpose of The Good Book, it seems, is to provide humanists with their own guidebook which could take the place of the sacred texts of the religions he sees as obsolete or discredited. 

This book reminded me of those high-functioning autistic savants who are able to translate their singularity of focus into works of obscure and unusual genius.  Sometimes these works are merely brilliant curiosities, like Stephen Wiltshire, who produces lifelike paintings of real cityscapes based on the briefest of observations, or Gilles Trehin, the creator of Urville, an incredibly detailed imaginary city.

On the other hand, some have a huge and lasting impact.  Think, for instance, of JRR Tolkein spending decades in his study creating the detailed languages, history, geography and folklore of Middle Earth.  And surely Geoffrey of Monmouth had something of the autistic savant in him to compile 2,000 years worth of stories of imaginary British kings including Arthur and Lear. 

The Good Book falls somewhere between these examples.  It is not so odd as to be unapproachable, but it seems to me to lack the breadth and universality to outlive its author.

The first impression you get is that this is a parody of the Bible.  Its title, its division into books with biblical-sounding names, its chapter and verse structure with a new line for each verse, and its stilted and overformal language seem intended to evoke the King James Bible.  He's even mimicked the biblical authors by being extremely coy about his sources.  Using the enigmatic list of surnames at the back of the book dedicated scholars could probably trace them, but I was none the wiser. 

I didn't find these elements of parody offensive so much as distracting.  They made me unsure if I was meant to take the book seriously, or if it was just taking the piss.

This is a shame, because Grayling does actually have some worthwhile things to say.  The early parts of the book are especially effective.  His Genesis provides a lovely scientifically-based paean to the wonders of nature.  Lamentations is a meditation on the brevity of life and the inevitability of suffering and grief, and it is followed by Consolations which extols the virtues of true friendship.  Amongst a number of books which copy the wisdom traditions of the Old Testament and Apocrypha with more or less success his Proverbs is as good a collection of popular maxims as you will find anywhere.

Near the end of the book, Grayling provides his own secular version of the Ten Commandments, and the one Great Commandment that sums them up.

Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous: at least, sincerely try. 

Add to these ten injunctions this: O friends, let us always be true to ourselves and to the best in things, so that we can always be true to one another.

It's hard to disagree.  If we all followed these commandments we would be better people.  Yet they lack the specificity and concrete detail of the originals.  What, after all, does Grayling think we should do?  Throughout the book he gives various bits of advice, but in the end it is difficult to pin him down.

Other parts of the book are less successful.  There are two long historical books.  The first, Histories, provides a long and detailed account of the war between Greece and Persia in the 6th century BC.  The second, Acts, presents detailed biographies of five ancient statesmen: the Spartan Lycurgus, the Athenians Solon and Pericles, and the Romans Cato and Cicero. 

I found these choices odd.  His point seems to be that the foundation of our own society lies in ancient Greece and Rome, the seedbed of the Western tradition.  The Persian War thus represents the pivotal moment in which the Western love of freedom triumphed over Eastern totatitarianism.  I'm not convinced by this duality but I get the point. 

I'm less clear what purpose the statesmen serve - if they represent the foundations of the Western tradition, it is strange that they are all politicians.  Where are the philosphers, poets and playwrights whose influence has been so much greater than the statesmen whose works have long since passed into obscurity?

Nor is it only the histories that betray a rather obsessive love of all things classical.  The Romans appear repeatedly throughout his book, telling their tales, extolling their ideal virtues, providing examples of friendship and filial devotion.  There are three consequences of this.

The first is that he finds himself, whether by accident or design, very much a Stoic.  He praises virtue for its own sake, as something which accords with nature and which makes for the greatest happiness.  Reason must rule over emotion, we must strive to be virtuous, we must accept whatever nature brings us.  This attitude was the pervasive philosophy of the Roman rulers, and it also appears to be Grayling's. 

Secondly, since none of the ancients, including the Stoics, were atheists and Grayling is, he has had to replace the role of the gods in ancient ethics with something else.  This "something else" appears to be a concept of natural law.  What is right is self-evident, and can be deduced from the nature of things.

Thirdly, and most disturbingly, his viewpoint is highly patrician in the ancient Roman sense.  It is an ethic for rich, powerful men.  He writes at length on the uses of power, of kindness towards one's inferiors, of the ethic of public service.  This is not an ethic for the poor or downtrodden, or even for the working class, it is an ethic for those with leisure and choice.  Nor is it an ethic for women.  Female voices and characters are almost completely absent.  It is certainly not an ethic for slaves, whose pervasive presence in ancient Greece and Rome he conveniently glosses over. 

When he does move forward in time, Grayling barely makes it into the 19th century.  His science is certainly reasonably modern, but the closest he gets to the problems of modern politics is the beginning of The Lawgiver, which lifts some ideas from John Stuart Mill and provides a kind of Politics 101 introduction to Victorian Liberalism.  There is not much here to help the 21st century statesman or stateswoman.

Grayling, as per my request, certainly has a world view.  He expresses it at length, yet in the end it is very slight.  We have a brief time on this earth, and then we die and are no more.  We should make the most of that time, striving to do well, to learn wisdom, to benefit others and to leave a good legacy.  If we think carefully and read judiciously, it will be clear to us what this good consists of. 

There's nothing wrong with that, but it didn't really need a 600-page mock Bible.  I won't be abandoning the actual Bible for this book.  Aside from the presence of God, in whom I continue to believe, the original is just so much more interesting.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Farewell Margaret Thatcher

I for one will not be in deep mourning over this week's death of Margaret Thatcher.  Of course her death is a sad event for her family and friends and they are entitled to their grief.  As for the rest of us, the grieving began much earlier, as the results of her policies began to bite.


One thing you can say in Thatcher's favour is that she never hid her intentions.  Our current crop of tories tend to hide their light under a bushel, pretending to be moderate and compassionate and then implementing hardline policies when they get elected.  Thatcher was always up front - pro-free enterprise, anti-welfare, anti-union.  She said she would privatise services and she did.  She said she would reduce the power of trade unions, and she did.  She said she would resist communism, and she did.

If you think those are all good things, then she will be your heroine and you will be in mourning right now.  I don't, and I'm not.  Once Thatcher had won a bloody and costly battle with the mining union, helped Murdoch lock out his printing staff and changed the laws to make striking difficult, she moved on to abolishing the minimum wage.  As a result, the lowest paid workers can now be paid whatever their employers choose.  Employment is no longer a route out of poverty, and inequality has continued to increase across the UK despite a long period of full employment.

As for privatisation, our current crop of committed privatisers in Australia should take note.  Once you have sold the assets, you can never get them back.  The private sector doesn't want the assets that are a continual drain, they only want the ones that they can make money out of.  So you either pay them to run the loss-making assets out of the public purse - and you soon find they have you over a barrel because they own the infrastructure - or run them yourself.  As for the profitable ones, instead of the profits entering the public purse and being used for the public good, they enter the pockets of private entrepreneurs, who avoid paying tax so you get nothing.  You may think it will balance the books, but look at Britain's government now!

Even in foreign affairs, where opposing Soviet totalitarianism sounds like a great thing, Thatcher and her good mate Ronald Reagan did so by promoting their own tame totalitarian regimes.  Pinochet in Chile, who retained his friendship with Thatcher long after she left power.  Similar dictators in just about every other South American country, often installed after the violent overthrow of elected socialist regimes.  She even propped up the South African apartheid regime and described Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.  She was not a lover of freedom, she was just a lover of capitalism.

If you like the brutality of a dog eat dog world where, as as the lady herself said, there is no such thing as society, only individuals, you will mourn her passing.  If like me you think ordinary people deserve better, you might just pass.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Art of Evolutionary Explanation

The bit of atheist apologetics I enjoy the least, and find the most absurd, is the evolutionary explanation for religion.  Daniel Dennett wrote a whole book on it, and Michael Shermer has written several.  The point is generally that religion developed because it, or the bahavioural basis behind it, has survival value. 


Shermer says our ability to attribute intention to things that have none (like the sky) is a by-product of our ability to predict the behaviour of predators.  Dennett says that religion builds social cohesion in small hunter-gatherer groups and hence helps them to survive by working together.  EO Wilson says altruism grows out of our drive to care for our offspring and hence ensure our genetic continuity.

The thing about all these explanations is that they seem plausible, and could even possibly be true,  but the evidence for them is almost non-existent.  This is because the science of evolutionary biology has few mechanism for gathering evidence about past behaviour and even fewer for the thoughts of pre-literate humans.  We can tell what animals looked like, what sort of habitats they lived in, and even what they ate, from the physical remains in the fossil records.  However when it comes to how they behaved, and why, we're mostly just guessing. 

These explanations are in fact part of a wider art-form.  This art is not really practiced by serious scientists in the course of their research work.  "We don't know" is one of the most important phrases in the research scientists' lexicon.  It's what drives them to go and find out, and what keeps them humble about the reach of their craft.  Research papers are couched in qualifications and limitations, written in a careful, circumspect style which ensures the researcher claims not a speck more than the evidence will support. 

However, the Art of Evolutionary Explanation is a staple of science journalism.  The caution and technical precision of professional research is admirable, but dull and virtually incomprehensible to non-specialists.  The science journalist's job is to explain this complex and nuanced science to a lay audience.  Science journalists usually have some kind of scientific background and some, like Stephen Jay Gould, for example, or Stephen Hawking, are distinguished scientists in their own right. 

Yet when they write for a popular audience they operate under severe constraints.  Hawking, for instance, explains that when he was writing A Brief History of Time his editors told him each formula he included would halve his readership.  In the end he included only one: e=mc2, which most people think they understand even if they really don't.  Yet the science which made him famous is almost entirely mathematical.

In this kind of writing, "we don't know" is a difficult (although not impossible) message to sell.  People are reading these books because they want to know, and the temptation to answer the question is too strong to resist.  Hence the birth of the Evolutionary Explanation. 

We know that life evolved, the evidence for this is overwhelming.  However, how a specific life-form evolved, how it got to be like it is and where it is, is often unclear.  Our evidence is just too patchy.  Scientists say "we don't know".  Science journalists, on the other hand, are likely to reach for the nearest hypothesis.  Here's an example from A Sheltered Life: The Unexpected History of the Giant Tortoise by Paul Chambers, explaining how giant tortoises came to live on the remote Galapagos Islands.

...sometime between about 5 and 2 million years ago the ancestor (or ancestors) of the Galapagos Tortoises were washed up on a beach, having crossed 1,000 kilometres of open ocean from South America.  This ancestor was probably washed up on one of the islands of the south-east of the archipelago....

As Michael Shermer would say, "perhaps".  How often do South American land tortoises make it to the Galapagos these days, and if they do how long do they survive and do they manage to set up breeding populations?  What, in reality, are the chances of not just one, but a viable breeding population of tortoises (which do not swim) making such a hazardous journey?  The more you think about the scenario, the more it stretches credulity.  However, since this explanation fits the genetic evidence, and we don't have a better one, it will have to do.

At least Chambers has genetics on his side, even if it falls a fair way short of proving his hypothesis, and he lacks viable alternatives.  Much less so with the origins of religion, which is much more widespread and complex than the giant tortoise and is subject to a number of alternative explanations.  We certainly know that all peoples everywhere have religions of one sort or another, and that these have some common elements even though they also differ widely.  We even have some, albeit patchy, knowledge about how some of these came about.  However, it is a long leap from this knowledge to the chains of causality proposed by Shermer, Dennett and Wilson. 

What ultimately leads them to their conclusions is much the same kind of reasoning that leads Chambers to his.  They feel they know that religion evolved because everything evolved.  This is a cornerstone of their worldview.  They just need to explain how it happened.  Here's a possibility that fits the evolutionary hypothesis.  In the absence of other possibilities - like the founders of the religions having special insight or revelation, say - this seems the most likely one.

When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail.  If religion did indeed evolve in a way analogous to the evolution of species, then these might be part of the explanation of how it happened.  However, until that case is made, our high profile atheists are just guessing.

Perhaps they should take a lesson from one of our most popular science journalists, David Attenborough.  I wish I could remember the name of the film to find you a link to it, but at one point in one of his documentaries he shows footage of a species of seabird.  When one of the bird couple arrives back at the nest, the pair engages in an elaborate and comical dance which involves bobbing up and down in front of each other and slapping their beaks together.  Always the most straight-faced of narrators, Attenborough chortles and says, "I have no idea why they do this."

Monday, 1 April 2013

Good Friday, Easter Sunday

On Good Friday I gave a short meditation on two passages - the story of Jesus before Pilate as told in John 18 and 19, and for a bit of background the story of David's plan to build a temple from 1 Chronicles 17.

David certainly had plenty of faults, but he is often protrayed as the archetypal King of the Jews, the man who first established them as a secure, powerful nation.  1 Chronicles 17 recounts how, after fighting various wars and establishing his kingdom securely, David had the notion to build a temple to Yahweh.  Even his household prophet Nathan thought it was a good idea.  Yahweh disagreed, and sent David a message.  The essence of it was that he didn't need a house, and if any house-building was to be done he, Yahweh, would do it.  He would establish Israel in their home, and build a house (that is, a dynasty) for David. 

David was put firmly in his place.  He may have had a household prophet, but he didn't have a household God.  He served Yahweh, not the other way around.  His kingdom, and the safety of his people, were a gift from a loving God, not an obligation.

About a thousand years later there was another man who liked to think of himself as the King of the Jews, Herod the Great.  He built not one, but two temples.  In Jerusalem he built a beautiful temple for the God of Israel, in which the priests worshipped and sacrificed daily.  Just over 100 kilometres away on the coast he built a whole city which he called Caesarea after Julius Caesar, and it included a temple to the recently deified Caesar in which the Roman officials worshipped and sacrificed. 

We need to understand, then, that what was happening in Jesus' trial involved not simply a conflict between two groups of people, but two gods and two ways of being.  It seems fairly clear that in the relationship between the temple of Yahweh and the temple of Caesar, Caesar had the upper hand.  The Jewish priests could administer the day to day affairs of the Holy City, but they had to do so with a Roman garrison overlooking the Temple, and any important decisions - like putting someone to death - had to be referred to Pilate.  He seemed to enjoy rubbing it in, too.

Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law".

"But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected.

You think Pilate didn't know that?  At the conclusion of the trial the Jewish leaders make the relationship clear: "We have no king but Caesar!".

What was Jesus' position in all this?  He seemed even more powerless than the the Jewish leaders.  Pilate questioned him: "Are you the King of the Jews?"  Jesus' reply seems to be ambiguous.  The NIV translates it as "you are right in saying I am a king", while the NRSV has the non-committal "you say that I am a king."  Either way it is clear that if he admitted to kingship at all, it was not the kind of kingdom Pilate or the Jewish leaders had in mind.

"My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.  But now my kingdom is from another place."

Pilate clearly thought that such a kingdom was absurd.  To demonstrate this to the Jewish leaders, he had Jesus flogged and crowned with a crown of thorns and then presented him to them, bloodied and battered.  "Here is the man", he said.  He seems to have thought this was enough, but the Jews would accept nothing short of execution, so in the end he complied.  He didn't really care much either way but he couldn't resist having a dig, writing simply "the King of the Jews" as Jesus' crime.  He was letting them know, although they didn't want to hear it, that this was the only King of the Jews there would ever be. 

The Kingdom of Caesar seemed to have triumphed again, but did it really?  The priests and Jewish leaders wanted to take on the Romans at their own game.  They longed for their own kingdom, and a generation later attempted to set one up, fighting and ultimately losing a brutal war with the Romans.

Jesus understood the futility of this idea.  Only the most foolhardy would challenge the might of Rome, but even if they won what would they gain?  Jewish soldiers would replace Romans, a Jewish emperor would sit on the throne.  Stalin would replace the Tsar, and be replaced in his turn by Putin.  The business of empire would go on undisturbed.

Jesus wanted a different kingdom.  In his kingdom, the hungry would be fed, the lame would walk and the blind would see, the outcast would take centre stage, the nations would be united in service to the God of Love not subjugated by the God of War.  His kingdom would not come with a rush of soldiers and chariots, it would grow like yeast in dough, like wheat in a field, like mustard bushes self-sowing spontaneously from the tiniest seeds.

As Jesus stood beside Pilate in his crown of thorns, with blood trickling down his face, it must have seemed a forlorn hope.  As he hung on the cross crying out the words of Psalm 22 - "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" - it must have seemed like a foolish dream.  All through the Sabbath that followed, as they sat in their borrowed lodgings and wondered what to do with the rest of their lives, Jesus' disciples must have thought they had made a horrible mistake. 

And then came Easter Sunday....