Apologies for not posting yesterday; I was sitting in my new satin pajamas engrossed in John Connolly’s latest noir thriller, The Unquiet, and very good it is, too. He’s back on form, I think, after The Black Angel, which I thought overdid the supernatural elements, rather. He’s at his best, to my mind, when you’re never completely sure whether they’re actually supposed actually to exist or are a suspicion — no more than that — in the mind of the first person narrator, Maine Private Eye Charlie Parker, haunted as he is both by the murder of his first wife and child and by the dark areas of his soul — and those of others — he keeps on discovering as he plies his trade as investigator of particularly nasty cases.
If you’ve not come across Mr Connolly, and you like noir thrillers, you’re in for a treat. I’d suggest starting with the first of the series,Every Dead Thing, and reading them in sequence.
Then, having finished The Unquiet, I started his other new book, The Book of Lost Things, which is a delightful, though still very dark, riff on some well-known (and some not-so-well-known) children’s fairy tales. It explores the same sort of territory as did some of the late Angela Carter’s re-workings of Grimm.
Anyway, back today. When I haven’t been reading John Connolly, I’ve been thinking about a very interestig discussion over at Stumbling And Mumbling, where Chris Dillow considers — and finds himself in broad agreement with — Johan Hari’s worries about Gordon Brown’s Social Christianity; says Hari:
I think faith is a dangerous form of bad thinking – it is believing something, without evidence or reason to back it up….Yet at the same time, when there are so many Murdochian pressures on a British Prime Minister dragging them to the right, pressing him to fellate the rich, isn’t it good to have a countervailing pressure to help the poor – even a superstitious one? If religion drives Brown’s best instincts and whittles down his worst, should we still condemn it?
I can’t, I fear, resist noting that whatever Johan Hari relies upon is clearly even worse than faith, since it leads him to believe things not only without evidence but despite evidence; he’s under the impression that ‘Jesus said to follow “every jot and tittle” of the psychotic Old Testament,’ which, quite simply, He didn’t, at least not if accurately reported by Matthew 5:18; He there refers to the Ten Commandments, and in the context of explaining that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a replacement for them but, in fact, is a summary of them and an extension of their implications.
Anyway, Mr Hari’s inability to verify his sources aside, Chris argues that Hari is right in that religious arguments play, or should play, no part in politics; says Chris,
In an egalitarian polity, in which people should be persuaded rationally of policies, religion should have no place – even if it is true. Religion might motivate political beliefs, but it shouldn’t, and needn’t, be the public justification for them.
I agree, sort of. Partly it depends on your audience. I agree it’s pretty pointless trying to discuss immigration in the context of Catholic social teaching to a general audience, but it seems wholly appropriate for the Catholic Church to be involved in lobbying and demonstrations on behalf of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, both since that’s very much part of the Church’s social teaching about the rights and dignity of individuals and because its an issue that affects a great number of the Church’s members. Obviously you’d probably want to discuss such matters in rather different terms when speaking to a non-Catholic, or not specifically Catholic, audience from the way you would with a specifically Catholic one, but the broad ideas are going to be the same because the moral values to which you’ll be appealing aren’t specifically Catholic ones.
This, I would argue, is not the same as trying — for example — to impose religious teaching on abortion through the law. I’d make that distinction because, ultimately, Catholic teaching on abortion depends on theological arguments about when life begins, and concepts about the soul, which you can’t, at least to my mind, try to impose on people who don’t happen to share them. While we have it on good authority that the Almighty takes a dim view not only of murder, theft and perjury but also of adultery, very few people, whatever their religious views, would want to see adultery made a criminal offence no matter how much they, themselves, may disapprove of it. That’s because you can’t really have a functioning society in which people go around murdering each other and stealing from each other with impunity, any more than you can have one where people can tell lies in trials without at least the danger of prosecution, but you can have a functioning society where people are, perhaps unfortunately, unfaithful to each other.
But to suggest that religious organisations shouldn’t take a view on social and political issues — particularly ones that directly affect their members — seems wholly artificial. No one has to agree with them, necessarily, but people aren’t disenfranchised just because they happen to belong to a church, mosque or synagogue. Heavens above, we even — on the subject of bad thinking without evidence or reason — let people vote who not only read The Daily Mail but also believe what they read in it.
If Gordon Brown thinks equality is important, then that’s what he thinks. I’m not that bothered about whether he thinks it as a result of his religious background, his political and philosophical reading or his experience of life.
No, what bothers me rather more is that he thinks it’s the business of government to promote equality, other than equality before the law — in all its branches — no matter how desirable he may think other forms of equality are. But that’s because I’m a man of conservative disposition (as opposed to a supporter of the Conservative Party) and, in consequence, accept and value
the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise. And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensable. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it.
There is, of course, as Oakeshott says, another form of politics, whose supporters
tell us that they have seen in a dream the glorious, collisionless manner of living proper to all mankind, and this dream they understand as their warrant for seeking to remove the diversities and occasions of conflict which distinguish our current manner of living. Of course, their dreams are not all exactly alike; but they have this in a common: each is a vision of a condition of human circumstance from which the occasion of conflict has been removed, a vision of human activity co-ordinated and set going in a single direction and of every resource being used to the full. And such people appropriately understand the office of government to be the imposition upon its subjects of the condition of human circumstances of their dream. To govern is to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living. Thus, politics becomes an encounter of dreams and the activity in which government is held to this understanding of its office and provided with the appropriate instruments.
Such people, though, are just as likely to be ‘left-wing atheists’ (as Johann Hari describes himself) as right-wing American tele-evangelists. Both are equally likely to cause no end of grief when they actually get their hands on some power and try
to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living.