Not Saussure

May 30, 2007

Politics, Religion (and some recommended light reading)

Filed under: Books, Politics, Religion — notsaussure @ 6:40 pm

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, (more…)

May 14, 2007

Getting cross about nothing

Filed under: press, Religion — notsaussure @ 11:08 pm

People may have seen various stories in The Telegraph, The Express and so forth about how children are, apparently, to be forbidden by schools from wearing crosses while symbols of other faiths are to be permitted.

I was going to write something about this, but I thought something didn’t quite ring true, and I wanted to check before I made a complete fool of myself (I do try to check things now and again, not that it always stops me making a fool of myself, of course). In this case, I’m glad I did, because an excellent piece by Five Chinese Crackers confirmed my suspicions. Essentially, according to 5CC, someone’s got hold of a draft version of guidance (not instructions, but guidance) for schools on what to do about requiring pupils to remove items of jewellery and the like for things like PE lessons.

The overall line, as far as I can see, is that there are some items that are, for members of some faiths, that it’s compulsory to wear at all times, so obviously you don’t tell the children to remove those. There are some other items, like crucifixes, that you’re not required to wear but which you obviously wouldn’t want to ask someone to remove without good reason — small gold crucifixes are not infrequently presented by a relative to young teenage girls on the occasion of their First Communion or Confirmation, which is an important rite of passage if you believe in such things, or left to them as a keepsake by a grandmother in her will. Obviously you don’t have to wear one, any more than a woman has to wear her wedding ring at all times, but it’s the sort of thing that she’ll probably want to wear unless there’s a good reason why she shouldn’t. I understand that perfectly well about crucifixes — it’s what my late wife felt about the crucifix she was given when she made her First Communion; she didn’t think God was particularly bothered about whether she wore it or not, but wasn’t just an ordinary item of jewellery like one of her other necklaces that she’d wear or not as she felt like it — as I think will most people.

Well, what seems to have happened is that whoever wrote this draft paper understood it equally well, and made the mistake of thinking his or her readers would understand it, too. So the author made the mistake, in trying to explain that there are equivalent items in non-Christian religions about which people feel the same way, of taking it for granted that he or she wouldn’t have to explain all this about crosses.

Result: someone from the Express gets hold of the draft paper — which is now being rewritten, it seems, just to spell it out for the hard of thinking that, of course, this applies to Christian symbols, too — and deliberately gets it back to front.

Well worth reading, 5CCs article.

April 28, 2007

Dawkins vs God, umpteenth round

Filed under: Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 1:28 pm

John Milton’s take on it:

In discourse more sweet
(For Eloquence the Soul, Song charms the Sense,)
Others apart sat on a Hill retir’d,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,
Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandring mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argu’d then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and Apathie, and glory and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false Philosophie:
Yet with a pleasing sorcerie could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm th’ obdured brest
With stubborn patience as with triple steel.

Not a scientific proposition, certainly. Nor, to my mind, to be dismissed solely on the grounds it isn’t one or that Milton must have been a brain-washed idiot.

That’s one of my main objections to Richard Dawkins’ method of arguing; not so much that it’s wrong but that it misses the point. Someone can advance the hypothesis that King Lear was, in fact, written not by William Shakespeare but by Sir Francis Bacon. It’s an highly improbable hypothesis, to my mind, and one that I’m happy to ignore unless — which I admit as a theoretical possibility, however slight — someone can adduce convincing evidence for it. However, someone can also advance the hypothesis that

no unhypnotized observer, if such an observer existed, could read it [Lear] to the end with any feeling except ‘aversion and weariness’. And exactly the same is true of ‘all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention the senseless dramatized tales, Pericles, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida.’

As Orwell says,

One’s first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he [Tolstoy] is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that — for instance — Warwick Deeping is ‘bad’.

There are ways of arguing against Tolstoy’s criticisms of Shakespeare, but, ultimately, there would be no way of convincing him that he’s wrong — or of convincing me that he’s right — in the way you might convince someone that Bohemia has no seacoast. Nor, indeed, would many people think that the merits or otherwise of The Winter’s Tale depend on its geographical accuracy, any more than is Tolstoy’s account of the Battle of Borodino susceptible to criticism as a work of military history.

Sir Peter Medawar was of the view

That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer […] . I have in mind such questions as

  • How did everything begin?
  • What are we all here for?
  • What is the point of living?

Doctrinaire positivism — now something of a period piece — dismissed such questions as nonquestions or pseudoquestions such as only simpletons ask and only charlatans profess to be able to answer (The Limits Of Science, p 66)

Clearly you don’t need religion to answer such questions, but it seems perversely to miss the point if you complain that they’re being answered in a non-scientific manner.

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April 26, 2007

Why Richard Dawkins is irritating.

Filed under: Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 11:21 pm

Matt, at An Insomniac, has a thoughtful article lamenting the way atheists seem to be getting up people’s noses, rather. I very much agree with him — especially when he says,

the hostile tone adopted considerably weakens the arguments being made. Whatever you believe, starting off by telling those you want to convince that they’re dangerous idiots is not the way to go about things. It simply hardens people against you – as can be seen by the responses to columns written by the likes of Terry Sanderson or A. C. Grayling in the Guardian and elsewhere. They’re merely preaching to the choir, and are unlikely to have changed any minds by it.

I frequently wonder who these writers are trying to convince, because they’re clearly not trying to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with them. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy;

‘Only a brain-washed idiot could fail to realise that God is a delusion!’
‘Well, I believe in God, and I don’t consider myself a brain-washed idiot, so I don’t think I can agree with you there.’
‘See, I said you were brain-washed’.

Personally, I think it’s a bit of fruitless argument, since it’s more about ways of seeing the world than about a proposition that can be proved or disproved one way or the other. We can’t argue about whether a certain picture is beautiful or not in the same way we can determine whether it’s hanging in the National Gallery or The Louvre, but the fact that we can’t agree on its merits doesn’t mean we can’t have an interesting and useful discussion — which may well change the attitudes of one or the other — or both — of us, and it would be pointless to conduct the discussion in terms of ‘you’re an idiot because you don’t see things the way I do’. For an excellent example, to my mind, of a very good-natured and illuminating discussion between a convinced atheist and a convinced believer, one could do a lot worse than look at the debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan at BeliefNet. They neither of them, I think, started out under the illusion that the other would end up changing his mind, but it was still a worthwhile debate. And well done Sam Harris for choosing to debate not with a crackpot red-neck literalist who thinks the world was created a few thousand years ago but with an intelligent and thoughtful gay Catholic secularist like Andrew Sullivan. (more…)

March 23, 2007

Strange Revelations

Filed under: nemesis, Religion — notsaussure @ 10:52 pm

snapshot1.pngJustin, at Chicken Yoghurt, has started Apocalypsewatch: An occasional series, which does what it says on the can. He argues, persuasively as it seems to me, that the controversy over the semiotics of David Cameron’s hairstyle — left or right parting — is a sure sign that the first of the Seven Seals has been opened by the Lamb, thus presaging the end of the world and giving me the opportunity to plug what I think is a brilliant site, Apocamon, The Final Judgement. snapshot4.png

This site takes, I fear, an age to load (open it in another tab and do something else for the 5 minutes it takes) but when it finally does open, you get the Book of Revelations in Manga style, complete with Apocamon cards (click on thumbnails to enlarge). They’ve managed four episodes so far, and promise the remaining ones some time before The Battle of Armageddon. The episodes take an age to load, too, but are worth the wait. At least I think they are.
UPDATE: This mirror site seems to load a lot faster

snapshot3.pngJustin complains that Revelations provides no information whatsoever about what side the First Horseman of the Apocalypse parts his hair on. I can only assume this is because his crown obscures it.

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Secularism, atheism and fundamentalism

Filed under: Politics, Religion — notsaussure @ 3:09 am

Matt Murrell and Sunny, at Pickled Politics are annoyed about an article by Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society in Comment Is Free last Monday, and I’m a tad impatient with it, myself.

Mr Sanderson writes, of what he calls religious liberals,

I’ve come to realise that the delusions of the liberals are not qualitatively different from those entertained by the Pat Robertsons or Abu Hamzas of this world.The danger that these apparently harmless liberals pose is that of enabling the fanatics, who happily use them as human shields. Just as the terrorists of the Middle East will hide out in schools and hospitals to avoid being targeted by enemy bombs, so the ideological terrorists hide behind the liberals and the good-natured in order to spread their doctrine of intimidation and terror.

I’ve tried to unscramble the simile as best I can, but I can’t make it mean anything other than that Mr Sanderson seems to think hospitals and schools in the Middle East are bad things because terrorists hide behind them. Consequently, I take it, in Mr Sanderson’s view, a hospital in Beirut is ‘not qualitatively different’ from a Hezbollah military bunker. That can’t be what he means, can it? In a similar vein, he writes, (more…)

March 15, 2007

Irreligous minorities in US Politics

Filed under: Politics, Religion, usa — notsaussure @ 10:33 pm

Some time ago I commented on the Gallop finding that 53% of Americans reckon they wouldn’t vote for an atheist as President.   While I still doubt how much you can read into that figure, since I find it impossible to believe that 53% of Americans would, when it came down to it, refuse to vote for someone with whose politics they agreed, purely on the grounds he didn’t believe in God, I must say I was a bit surprised to learn, via Andrew Sullivan, that only one member of Congress (Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.)) is prepared to admit to being an unbeliever.   He admitted this shocking fact in a survey, conducted by the Secular Coalition for America, intended to discover the highest-ranking elected official in the US prepared to come out of the closet as an

atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States.

Even then, as The Economist comments, he’s a pretty religious-ish sort of atheist; he told The Washington Post (fourth item down)

“I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”

so he’s still a member of a church, even if he doesn’t believe in God. According to The Washington Post, the deputy historian of the House of Representatives says that although other members of Congress have, in the past, professed themselves to be ‘free-thinkers’,

“As far as I know, Representative Stark is the first self-proclaimed non-theist,”

Other than the courageous Rep Stark, only three other elected officials were prepared to admit their lack of belief, and — without any disrespect — they hardly move in the highest corridors of power; they’re

Terry S. Doran, president of the School Board in Berkeley, Calif.; Nancy Glista on the School Committee in Franklin, Maine; and Michael Cerone, a Town Meeting Member from Arlington, Mass.

According to the Washington Post,

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is the first Muslim in Congress. Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) are the first Buddhists.

and I find it hard to credit there are more Buddhists than atheists or agnostics in the Congress, so I can’t imagine the results are in any way representative of American politicians’ true views (politicians being disingenuous about what they believe — surely not?) .

Were such a survey conducted here, one imagines that iit would elicit a similarly sparse response, but on the perfectly good grounds that ‘It’s none of your business’. There, I fear, it’s probably more because the politicians are worried about what their constituents might make of their atheism.

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March 7, 2007

Not a place to take Richard Dawkins

Filed under: junk science, Religion — notsaussure @ 4:37 pm

Via Boing Boing, a droll mini-documentary about a visit to Dinosaur Adventure Land, a young earth creationist theme park in Pensacola, Florida, which is apparently so weird that even other Creationists have disavowed it. The attraction was founded by a Mr Kent Hovind, who is current serving 10 years for 58 counts of tax fraud.

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March 3, 2007

Electing atheists and mormons

Filed under: Politics, Religion — notsaussure @ 1:16 am

Recently, in Westminster Wisdom, Gracchus referred to a Gallop Poll that contained the finding — possibly not particularly surprising to anyone who’s lived in the USA that the real no-no in American politics is admitting to being an atheist; apparently 53% of Americans questioned said they wouldn’t vote for an atheist for president, as compared with 4% who wouldn’t vote for a Catholic, 5% for someone who’s black, 42% for someone who’s 72 years of age or 43% for someone who’s gay.

The figures, of course, don’t necessarily reflect people’s actual voting behaviour; Ronald Reagan’s age was never a particular problem electorally (69 when he won the presidency for the first time), and neither — it seems — is it a particular handicap for the prospective Republican candidate Senator John McCain (who’ll be 72 in 2008). Nor, come to that, is the fact Rudy Giuliani is on his third wife the electoral liability that the poll’s finding that 30% of voters wouldn’t want to vote for so frequently-married a candidate. (more…)

January 16, 2007

‘Christian fascism’: What’s in a name?

Filed under: Blogroll, Books, Politics, Religion, usa, Wingnuts — notsaussure @ 6:56 pm

Interesting post by Gracchi (pleonasm again) complaining about the labels Islamo-Fascism and, now, ‘Christian fascism’, as applied by Chris Hedges to right-wing Christians in the United States. Gracchus’ thesis, with which I wholly concur, is that fascism properly refers to an identifiable political ideology, specifically that of Mussolini’s Italy and by conventional extension to Hitler’s Germany, Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain. Gracchus is possibly rather more dubious than am I about whether it’s applicable to Franco’s Spain, but I’m hardly an expert in that period of history so I’ll willingly concede the point.

Quite rightly, though, Gracchus (sorry, I have to write about him in the singular) complains that it’s now being used as a term of abuse for any particularly illiberal political movement and, as he notes, ‘not being liberal does not make you fascist’. To my mind, it’s there primarily as a signifier of the attitude of the person who uses it rather than to describe a particular movement or ideology. (more…)

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