tag: Religion



28
Feb 2012

Corporate donors to St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

Blessed are the rich, for they shall inherit the earth

Matthew 5:5 | New Testament (Church of England edition, 2012)

Last night in London, police and bailiffs with the blessing of the Church of England and under orders from The City of London Corporation, evicted the Occupy protesters from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The protest camp which has been a fixture in central London for over four months sought to voice opposition to corporate greed. It was perhaps appropriate, therefore, that St. Paul’s Cathedral was the location they chose to voice that opposition. For surely there can be no greater example of the power of corporate greed to twist and pervert the society in which it manifests.

Roughly two thousand years ago, if we accept the version of history upon which the Christian Churches are based, Jesus Christ cast the money lenders and profiteers from the sacred grounds of the temple. One does not need to believe that to be historical fact to appreciate the symbolism of the story, and by extension to understand the stated values of Christianity. Personally I do not consider the bible to be a work of historical fact. However, and I really cannot stress this enough, I am not being critical when I make that judgement. Indeed, there’s a sense – and it’s a very real sense – in which I consider sacred mythopoetry, such as that found in the bible, to be more important than historical fact. It’s absolutely vital of course, to be aware of the differences between the two, but there’s no sense in which historical fact disproves or invalidates myth. They are two separate categories of knowledge and fulfil two very different functions.

Take, for example, the Christian story of The Last Supper. It is one of the most important stories in our culture (in the words of Gregory Bateson, “it’s all made of stories, you know”) and I think it is illuminating; genuinely illuminating; that even as western civilisation has lost touch with its mythology, so we have seen the destructive rise of fast food and McDonald’s culture. I’m not saying one caused the other; I’m saying that within our ecology of mind, a particular pattern is manifesting in a number of different ways. Bateson discussed the Last Supper in one of his lectures…

“Host / guest” relationships are more or less sacred all over the world, as far as I know. And are of course one of the reasons why, to go back to where we started, the bread and the wine happen to be sacred objects.

Don’t [...] get it upside down. The bread and the wine are not sacred because they represent Christ’s body and blood. The bread and the wine are primarily sacred, because they are the staff of life; the staff of hospitality… of guests… of hosts… of health and all the rest of it. And so, secondarily, we equate them with Christ.

The sacredness is real. Whatever the mythology. The mythology is the poetical way of asserting the sacredness. And a very good poetical way of asserting it. But bread is sacred whether or not you accept the Christian myth. And so is wine. Unless you’re determined to eat plastic.

Gregory Bateson | Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (approx 50 minutes in)

Anyway, my point is that there’s a whole baby/bathwater thing going on when we embrace secularism without finding an adequate replacement for those positive elements provided by our cultural mythopoetry. There’s no inherent reason for us to stop asserting the primary sacredness of bread and wine when we cease to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. Yet nonetheless, that’s precisely what we have done. And I don’t necessarily think the gains we’ve made are adequate compensation for our losses.

Worst of all though, is when the very people who have appointed themselves as guardians of our mythology are themselves its ultimate betrayers. Christ’s casting out of the money-lenders and profiteers is right up there with The Last Supper when it comes to important stories. It would be more than a little trite to suggest that Jesus was the original Occupy protester, but there are certainly parallels to be drawn. And although I have been critical of certain aspects of the Occupy Movement on this blog in the past, it’s always been constructive criticism. I very much share the majority of their goals and any critical comments from me are merely suggestions as to how I feel the movement might be more effective. Precisely because I want Occupy to be more effective.

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Matthew 21:12-13 | King James Version

Matthew leaves us under no illusions as to whose side Jesus would have taken in last night’s eviction. And any member of Church of England clergy who believes that Christ would have been wearing a police uniform… or even the robes of the church… is guilty of staggering self delusion. Especially when you take a look at the list of those who offer “financial support” to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Blessed are the rich (just pretend we didn’t say that, OK?)

A few weeks ago I visited the St. Paul’s Cathedral website and clicked on a page called “Our Supporters“. The page contained a lengthy list of corporate (and other) donors… those who had made substantial (in excess of UKP £50,000) financial contributions to the Cathedral. Some time over the past few weeks someone at St. Paul’s realised that this was bad Public Relations, given that they were soon to send the police to remove people from the Cathedral steps… people who were protesting against those very corporations. And so they removed the list of donors, replacing it with a bland statement of thanks to staff members past and present.

Talk about spineless! Here we have an organisation that claims to follow the path of a man who explicitly opposed the very practices they now indulge in (inviting the money-lenders into the temple). More than that, they clearly know it, which is why they have quietly removed their donor list. Unfortunately for them they were not entirely thorough. Although they have completely purged the list from their website, it appeared on the last page of their most recent newsletter (available as a PDF file). And just in case they decide to purge that too, I have reproduced the list in full here. I have highlighted a few names that I think are particularly interesting, though the entire list makes for illuminating reading…

The Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral would like to thank all those who contributed to our £40 million campaign to conserve and restore St Paul’s Cathedral in celebration of the Cathedral’s 300th anniversary. We would specifically like to thank donors of £50,000 and over:

Robin Fleming and Family
Sir Paul and Lady Getty
The Garfield Weston Foundation
The City Bridge Trust
The St Paul’s Cathedral Trust in America
The Lennox Hannay Charitable Foundation
The Cadogan Charity
Lloyds TSB Group plc
An Independent Trust Associated with Barclays
City of London Corporation
City of London Endowment Trust
The Schroder Foundation
Goldman Sachs International
Mark Pigott OBE
The Wolfson Foundation
The Garfield Weston Trust for St Paul’s Cathedral
The Worshipful Company of Mercers
The Sunley Foundation
UBS Investment Bank
Mr Richard & Miss Clementine Hambro
McKinsey & Company
Roger Gabb
The Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust
CHK Charities Ltd
David Mayhew CBE
N M Rothschild & Sons Ltd
Sir Brian Williamson CBE
29th May 1961 Charitable Trust
Dr Yury Beylin
Brunswick Group
Mr and Mrs William R Miller CBE
Lennox and Wyfold Foundation
Hugh & Catherine Stevenson
Skandinaviska Enskilda Bank
Roger Carlsson
The Clothworkers’ Foundation
The Headley Trust
Nicholas Oppenheimer
Prudential Plc
Simon & Virginia Robertson
The Capital Group
Lexicon Partners
Slaughter & May
Barry Bateman
Charterhouse Capital Partners LLP
Cinven
Cognetas
Electra Partners LLP
Land Securities
Standard Chartered Plc
JP Morgan Cazenove
J.P. Morgan
Cantor Fitzgerald L.P
BGC Partners
Dulverton Trust
CMS Cameron McKenna LLP
The Freemasons’ Grand Charity
David Barnett
Len Blavatnik
Canary Wharf Group Plc
Lord Cockfield Memorial Trust
The Drapers’ Company
Man Group Plc Charitable Trust
London Stock Exchange
The Worshipful Company of Grocers
Stewart Newton
Sir David Walker
Sir Roger & Lady Gibbs
Sir Robert & Lady Finch
Peter and Stephanie Chapman
Fidelity UK Foundation
English Heritage
Wyfold Foundation
American Express
The Coutts Charitable Trust
The British Land Company Plc
HSBC Holdings Plc
Morden College
Aldgate & All Hallows Barking Exhibition Foundation
Jon B Lovelace
Richard & Ellen Sandor Family Foundation
The Scholl Foundation

And here’s the relevant page of the newsletter:

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5
Jan 2012

Politics, religion and the United States

Earlier today the TV news broadcast a report about the victory of Mitt Romney in the Iowa Caucus. This signals the beginning of the 2012 US Presidential Election and is the first step taken by the Republican Party in choosing who will run against Barack Obama in November. The report on RTÉ included short clips of the two front-runners, Romney and Santorum, speaking to their supporters. I was fascinated by Romney’s veiled reference to Manifest Destiny when he described America as the “hope of the world”, and by the openly religious language used by both candidates. In fact, in the case of Santorum I found the phrase “aggressively religious” leaping unbidden to mind.

Rick SantorumOf course, I’ve long been aware that the United States, for all its superficial similarities, is very much “a foreign country” from a European perspective*. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense, but simply as a description of the experience I had when I lived there. Just as with the time I spent in Egypt or Brazil, there was a real sense of being “outside Europe” when I worked in the US heartland, which is pretty odd considering the wide gulf that exists between many European cultures. I’ve lived in five European countries and I married a woman from a sixth. Yet despite the language barriers and the clear cultural differences, I felt much more of an alien when I lived in the English-speaking American Midwest than when I lived in Athens or Berlin.

No amount of US sitcoms or Hollywood movies can prepare a European for time spent in Ottumwa or Des Moines or Columbus. There’s a sense of dislocation precisely because everything seems so familiar on the surface, and yet the people you work with and spend time with clearly possess a very different value system. There’s the strange ideological attachment to gun-ownership, which I found quite disconcerting at times. And there’s the extreme patriotism, which in most European countries would be considered close to the dodgy end of nationalism despite being part of the mainstream of US society. And most of all there’s the heavily religious aspect of American life. Even coming from an Irish Catholic background, I found the seriousness with which many Americans take religious belief to be remarkable.

Although the United States is clearly in decline, it remains the only superpower at this moment in time; certainly the only superpower capable of projecting military and economic power around the world. One imagines that China or India might be at the stage where they could flex their muscles should they so wish, and test the dominance of the United States. But right now they haven’t done so, and so long as that’s the case, the US remains the only global superpower. Which is why US policy matters to the rest of the world. And why we should never forget – particularly when they have a Republican president – that US policy is not necessarily guided by the same considerations as those of European governments.

Witness, for example, the stark contrast between otherwise bosom-buddies Tony Blair and George ‘Dubya’ Bush when it came to their faith. Both professed to be religious Christians. But while Bush spoke proudly of leading his staff in daily White House bible readings, Blair’s irritation when asked by Jeremy Paxman if he ever “prayed together” with the US president (50 seconds into this video) was palpable. Blair clearly viewed the very premise of the question as being an attempt to ridicule him; as indeed, from a European sense, it probably was. But Bush would never have reacted in such a way and would almost certainly have taken the question at face value. That clip of Blair’s discomfort – almost embarrassment – when faced with questions about his faith (a faith that, let us not forget, he expressed openly in his writing) always calls to mind Matthew 26:31-75.

Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice…

Take the – admittedly more extreme than most – Rick Santorum who, having made it clear that he was running on an anti-abortion platform and “the sanctity of the American family” (which is almost certainly a reference to his profoundly homophobic views), came out with the following…

… America is a moral enterprise. Our founders understood that for the constitution to work, it had to be based on something deeper, something grounded. Our rights came from a creator [Santorum points upwards to heaven] and the creator has rules… ‘Nature and Nature’s God’, that was another phrase in the declaration of independence. They understood that through reason and through faith we could build a strong country from the ground up, based on a moral society. John Adams said our constitution was made for ‘a moral and a religious people; it is wholly inadequate for the governance of any other’. That is the mission of America

Prior to the report on the Iowa Caucus, the RTÉ news had run a story about the increasing tensions between Iran and the west, complete with a clip of President Ahmadinejad working himself into an impressive fury and shaking his fist at America. So when the Santorum clip was shown, Citizen S who was sitting next to me, wondered aloud, “how is that any different to the rhetoric of the Iranian government?” My reply… “it’s not”.

Indeed this point is made rather well by Ronald Wright, author of What is America? A Short History of the New World Order in this interview…

It’s well worth watching that clip. Wright lucidly explains how America developed as a nation riven with tension between religious fundamentalism and predatory capitalism, and how it has somehow managed to combine the two into a strange hybrid that has antecedents in the ‘frontier spirit’ of the 17th and 18th century and still looks forward with evangelical zeal to a world reshaped in its own image. The fact is, there are few things more dangerous than a powerful person who believes God is on their side. It makes them reckless with the lives of others and it provides them with a spurious justification for idiotic decisions. And it’s all the worse when that person feels backed into a corner, as the decline of the debt-ridden American Empire must surely do to future presidents.

Having said all that, and it pains me that religious discussion has become so polarised that I feel obliged to add this disclaimer; none of this is meant to be an attack on religion in and of itself. I believe the mytho-poetic aspects of religion and religious faith are of genuine importance to the future well-being of humanity. I believe the sterile atheism currently in fashion is also extremely dangerous in the long run; though in a different way to the various flavours of religious fundamentalism that grips much of humanity today. I believe that those “intellectuals” who are making a living tearing at the fabric of religion are doing terrible damage to our culture and our collective psyche. Yes, we need to radically re-evaluate our relationship with religion, but it needs to be done constructively and with subtlety and sensitivity. The boorish attacks of the new atheists are as unimaginative and unintelligent as the fundamentalist literalism of Rick Santorum or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

* Incidentally, I would exclude New York from that “foreign country”. Just as London is in no way representative of much of the rest of the UK, so New York feels more like an island off the coast of America than a part of the place.

Rick Santorum photo courtesy of salon.com

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18
Dec 2011

Speaking ill of the dead

A couple of days ago I awoke to discover that Christopher Hitchens had died. The news was initially conveyed to me by my twitter stream which was knee deep in tributes and impassioned insistences that we had lost “a great thinker”. There were other opinions scattered amongst the hagiography, but by and large they were in the minority. He was described as “the beau ideal of the public intellectual” by Vanity Fair magazine. And even those from whom one might expect a little balance seemed determined to speak no ill of the dead… a convention, incidentally, that Hitchens himself was unwilling to follow. Some of those who dared question the posthumous near-canonisation of the man have been accused of being “spiteful” or “insensitive”, apparently unaware of the insensitivity and spitefulness of the man they are defending. Read, for example, the views of Hitchens on Jerry Falwell – expressed live on CNN the day following Falwell’s death. I have no time for the loathsome Falwell, but the double-standards of some of those defending Hitchens is breath-taking to witness.

Christopher HitchensEven the normally fearless Billy Bragg sought to “add [his] voice to those who mourn the loss of Christopher Hitchens”. Bragg then went on to compare Hitchens favourably to George Orwell and express his admiration for the writer’s “compulsion to speak his mind”. About the worst thing he could find to say about him was that he “didn’t always agree with him”. I wonder if I were to spend the last decade of my life writing exultant articles in defence of cluster bombs and endless wars (in which young men are sent to kill and die overseas while I eat and drink myself slowly to death in luxury)… if I were to write a series of borderline racist articles about the followers of Islam and loudly champion the “clash of civilisations” like the most boorish of George Bush’s neoconservative cheerleaders… I wonder if I were to resort to calling women who dared to criticise the Bush administration’s foreign policy “sluts” and “fucking fat slags”… I wonder if the worst I would get from stalwarts of The Left would be “well, I didn’t always agree with him”?

I certainly hope not.

The fact of the matter is, Christopher Hitchens may have been a half-decent writer (and that’s as far as I’d go incidentally… “half-decent”) and he may well have been an engaging and witty conversationalist (I don’t know as I never met the man). He certainly didn’t pull any punches, and was willing to express his opinion even when it might land him in hot water. But you know what… attend any meeting of a neo-fascist organisation (the BNP, the KKK, or your local equivalent) and you’ll find plenty of people willing to express opinions that might land them in hot water. I’m obviously not suggesting Hitchens was a member or sympathiser of such groups; but if it’s just the willingness to express unpleasant opinions in public that earns you respect, why isn’t the press filled with columns lauding the greatness of Racist Tram Woman?

Incidentally, I should also make it clear that I do not wish cancer or death on anyone (well, there may be the occasional dictator or mass-murderer who I’d be happy to see die in a bizarre gardening accident). I feel no happiness or satisfaction at the death of Hitchens and I wish those who knew him comfort in their grief. I’m not saying “Yay! Hitchens is dead”, I’m saying “Hang on a second, now that he is dead, why are we forgetting about all the horrible things he said and supported?”

And I’m aware that many seem willing to give Hitchens a pass because of his position on religion. A position which I personally find simple-minded and as far from “the beau ideal of the public intellectual” as it is possible to get. Humanity does indeed need to re-evaluate our relationship with religion, but that the discussion appears to be happening between religious extremists and the narrow atheist fundamentalism of Hitchens, Dawkins and the rest is just depressing. I always thought the mark of a true intellectual was that they could appreciate the nuances in complex issues and could navigate controversial and difficult discussions without resorting to pathetic insults and nonsense generalisations. No?

Perhaps my view of intellectualism needs to be revised given the recent celebration of Hitchens. Perhaps modern intellectualism is to be found in the championing of repellent military tactics such as cluster munitions while denouncing your critics as fucking fat slags. Perhaps it is to be found in taking delight in war, mayhem and violent death (from a distance of course… if Orwell really was Hitchens’ hero, then why did he never take up a rifle and face down the Taliban in Helmand province himself?) Perhaps we get the intellectuals we deserve… and judging by our violent, crass and deeply narcissistic society, perhaps we don’t deserve much better than Hitchens.

Photo courtesy of The Independent

I had just about finished writing this piece when I encountered Glenn Greenwald’s article over at Salon.com which makes pretty much exactly the same points, uses many of the same examples and goes into rather more depth than my own piece. As a result I almost scrapped this piece and tweeted a link to Salon instead. But in the end I figured that it’s an opinion that’s worthy of repeating.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


28
Feb 2011

A knock on the door

This morning as I sat reading the news and shaking my head in dismay at the dozen examples of human folly it presented, someone came to the front door. There’s nothing unusual about that… the postman often rings the bell so he can tell me a corny joke while delivering the mail. And we get a lot of sales people here… often, inexplicably, trying to sell us services we already use. “Sorry to bother you, sir”, they always begin, “but are you an Eircom customer?” Trying to hide my exasperation from the person in the Eircom jacket, I reply “Yes I am, actually”. They then smile, tell me to have a nice day, and move on to the next door. Airtricity do it every couple of months too.

I guarantee it would be more cost effective, in terms of time spent and numbers of households targeted, to issue their sales teams with a simple print-out of addresses of existing customers. It would also put an end to the slow erosion of my goodwill towards my service providers that makes it more likely I’ll listen to rival sales teams when they arrive.

Anyway, this morning when I opened the door I was greeted not by the avuncular postie, nor by a corporate wind-breaker wrapped around a human hard-sell. Instead there were two women with the kind of broad, earnest smiles that serve as a warning that you’re about to have a conversation in which biblical quotations will feature prominently. “We’re sorry to bother you”, said the younger of the two. It was early enough that my brain hadn’t yet kicked fully into gear and I wondered briefly if they learned their script from the corporate sales folk. It was only later I realised it was obviously the other way round. She continued in that measured, reasonable tone that so often masks deep unreason. “I’m sure you have your own beliefs”, she said.

I nodded. “Yes I do”, I said quite emphatically. She thrust a leaflet into my hand. “Well, we’re Jehovah’s witnesses and we thought you might like to take some time to consider what the bible has to say…”

Head in a cage

It’s at this point in any encounter with a religious fundamentalist that the option to engage or disengage presents itself. On another day I might have spent quite a while trying to patiently explain why I felt so troubled by their presence on my doorstep… always knowing that it was water off a duck’s back. But this morning I just wasn’t in the mood. I shook my head and handed back the leaflet. “I’ve read the bible as it happens. And I just don’t accept that your interpretation is more valid than my own. Thank you and goodbye.” Their smiles didn’t change a single iota. They thanked me for my time and walked away.

A little later I glanced out of my upstairs window and saw eight or ten extremely clean and smartly dressed people standing outside, clearly comparing their experiences of my street. Where once they would have genuinely angered me, now my overwhelming emotion was one of sadness. They were trapped in a cage not of their own making. And so are damn near all of us. Theirs is just easier to see than most.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


13
Jul 2008

Equality

I noticed the “women bishops” thing hit the headlines this week. Thing is, I knew the anglican church were in for another round of this nonsense the very moment the women priests thing had been settled. It was inevitable. Frankly, though, I can’t think about this issue without the words of Bill Hicks echoing in my ears:

“Women priests? Great. Great. Now there’s priests of both sexes I don’t listen to…”

It’s all very silly. Y’know? Of course I acknowledge the right of women to confer upon themselves whatever strange archaic titles they want, whether that be ‘priest’ or ‘bishop’ or ‘grand high vizier’. Men should have no monopoly on superstitious weirdness. But given the general contempt with which I hold such titles, as well as the low opinion I have of the modern churches, it’s hardly a great leap forward for feminism in my view.

Like the “gays in the military” thing, an issue which Bill Hicks also neatly dissected with a single observation (“Anyone dumb enough to want to be in the military… … …”)

I actually find myself in the uncomfortable position of — ostensibly — opposing equality when it comes to the question of homosexual men or women being admitted to the army. Once again, like the women priests thing, I of course acknowledge that a person should never be discriminated against because of their sexuality. But at the same time I find nationalism an inherently problematic concept, and I am utterly — right to the core of my being — opposed to militarism.

So you see, I’d argue that almost anything that reduces the size of our armies is a good thing. So I say “let the army have their prejudices”. In fact, let’s encourage some more! Next up, ban redheads from the military. Then anyone with brown eyes should be dishonourably discharged. Right-handed people and anyone whose name contains the letter ‘S’.

Seriously.

Gays in the military? No!

(but no straights either)

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


14
Feb 2008

Happy St. Cyril’s Day

It’s the 14th of February, and as we all know, that means it’s the feast of St. Cyril.

Saint Cyril was born in Northern Greece, but took it upon himself to bring The Good Word to Eastern Europe and — along with his brother, Saint Methodius — is responsible for converting the Slavs. Saint Cyril also invented the alphabet that still bears his name (Saint Script, or as it’s sometimes known; Sanskrit) and used it to translate the gospels into Slavonic. The feast of St. Methodius is also celebrated today, as is the feast of St. Maro, founder of the Maronites and the first person to work out that food left to steep in a sauce overnight tastes much better when barbecued.

Interestingly, today is also the feast of St. Apollonius of Terni (the patron saint of purple rain), the feast of St. Ammonio of Alexandria (the patron saint of noxious fumes), the feast of St. Zeno of Rome (patron saint of logical paradoxes), and of course, it’s also the feast of St. Proto (patron of scale models and stuff that still needs testing).

I think that covers them all. Any suggestion that I may have missed someone will be met with a firm, but fair…

Bah Humbug in cyrillic

The idea for this post was shamelessly stolen from John Band.

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23
Aug 2007

Feral Teens: A result of godlessness?

There’s a discussion over at The Sharpener regarding the Feral Teen Menace (TM) which has apparently sprung up in recent years. It seems that the youth of today is uniquely troublesome and all manner of measures are being considered (even if only by authoritarian right-wingers) to deal with them. The tabloids have decided that cheap booze is largely responsible for the problem, and banning the consumption of alcohol in public along with raising the legal drinking age to 21 are just two of the ideas being proposed.

As an aside, I’m mildly amused by the fact that people from the Norman Tebbit end of the political spectrum can propose increasingly heavy restrictions on alcohol consumption in order to deal with modern teens without causing too much of a furore. Yet woe-betide an Islamic scholar who suggests anything of the sort. White right-wingers are simply proposing sensible solutions to a rising tide of lawlessness. Brown moslems, on the other hand, are trying to impose a global caliphate on us all. Go figure.

Anyways, I’m not a fan of alcohol as it happens and haven’t had more than a couple of drinks in the past few years. But that’s purely a biochemical thing (it makes me feel shit these days, where once I found it pleasant) and certainly isn’t an indication of a prohibitionist mindset. Drop round with some pot and see how long it lasts if you don’t believe me. So while a public drinking ban wouldn’t personally impact on me, it’s clearly a ridiculous idea. Criminalising someone for having a cold beer in the park on a warm day just because the tabloids claim the kids are all out of their skulls on alcopops and vandalising bus-shelters is an over-reaction (to put it mildly) and any claims that raising the drinking age to 21 will have a significant impact on crime conveniently ignores the evidence provided to us by the USA.

Incidentally, I have a dare for anyone who genuinely believes that raising the drinking age to 21 is a good idea. Find yourself a twenty-year-old squaddie just returned from a tour in Iraq and tell him he can’t have a pint down his local. If he refuses to listen, then attempt to restrain him. Go on! Do your civic duty!

All the same, I do believe that we are witnessing a major social problem right now and it is manifesting itself most clearly in the youth. The social fabric is indeed beginnning to fray somewhat, and today’s kids do seem less respectful of their own communities than was once the case. Youth crime rates have increased somewhat faster than population and youth suicide is off the scale (that last fact can partly be attributed to a lessening of the social stigma surrounding suicide and a consequent increase in suicides being recorded as such, rather than as “death by misadventure” as was often the case previously, but that’s clearly only part of the explanation).

My own view is that youth crime has little to do with the fact that we allow people to get pissed when they’re eighteen. We’ve been permitting them to do that since Tebbit was a nipper and while the man has clearly spent his life being a menace, even I must concede that he probably wasn’t guzzling white cider and mugging old ladies when he was a teenager.

No, my own view is that our social problems are simply the inevitable consequence of a late-capitalist civilisation that is itself clearly committing suicide. Socialism — for all its many faults — has at its core an attempt to give each individual a stake in a wider society. This is in direct opposition to the individual materialism required by consumer capitalism and instilled in us by a constant barrage of psychologically manipulative media imagery. If people find genuine fulfillment and contentment in the simple things in life… family, friends and a sense of social worth, then any attempt to convince them that fulfillment can only be found via the purchase of a new car or an expensive watch or a holiday in the Seychelles is doomed to failure. Therefore we’ve created a generation who feel utterly detached from society and the comfort, security and contentment it offers. Self-obsessed, self-serving, isolated and unhappy individuals make by far the best consumers. This is just common sense. Why therefore, are we surprised that our civilisation has created them? Or that a widespread sense of social alienation should lead to a lack of respect for that society?

Add to that an awareness of impending environmental catastophe (which, whether you believe it will happen or not, is clearly a significant part of the belief system of modern youth) and you have a recipe for nihilism. We’ve annihilated the future. And people with no future either get angry or they get depressed. The crime / suicide thing.

Now, personally I don’t think there’s much we can do about this. Without a wholescale restructuring of our society, removing the emphasis on personal consumption and attempting to knit back together that social fabric, there’s just no option beyond ever-more authoritarian policies. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have an alcohol-related social problem for instance.

However, one thing struck me about the debate currently taking place at The Sharpener, and I want to focus on it. That’s the idea that the root cause of the Feral Teen Menace is our increasing godlessness. As our culture becomes more secular and religion plays a diminishing role in the lives of individuals, so crime increases.

Perhaps surprisingly, I do think there’s something in this. No, I’ve not recently found Jesus or anything… I actually found him years ago as it happens. He was down the back of the sofa along with a handful of loose change, a broken comb and a silver ring that no bugger could recall having seen before. I lost him soon afterwards though… told him to wait in the car when I went in to buy some cigarette papers and matches and when I came out he’d wandered off. But he’s a grown man so I figured he could take care of himself.

Aaanyways, while pretty much all religious beliefs are obviously irrational, it’s a very blinkered atheist indeed who would insist that religion plays no part in creating a sense of social inclusion. I’m not suggesting that’s a justification for the various evils that god-botherers have unleashed upon the world. It isn’t. And dispelling the superstition and nonsense of religion is clearly a good thing. But there’s a whole baby / bathwater nexus going on that needs to be examined.

See, most of my readers will acknowledge that, on balance, the influence of religion on society is negative. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say “very negative”. Any Christians who are offended by this can take their religion and… forgive me with it. However, it’s not 100% negative. It has certain positive roles to fill, one of which is to offer that sense of social inclusion I mentioned. So while the secularisation of society is, on balance, a good thing; the fact that it has happened without putting alternative systems in place to take over the positive roles once played by religion has led to a number of social problems.

A local example… there’s a hospital in Cork City that I’ve been in more times than I’d like. It used to be run by a religious order but has now been transferred to the state. There’s not a doctor in the place who won’t admit that the levels of hygiene and administrative efficiency have dropped dramatically since the changeover. It seems that a cleaner who believes they are doing God’s work is better at their job than one who is doing it for a paycheque. This is not an argument in favour of religion. It’s an argument in favour of ensuring that people have something other than the minimum wage to inspire them in their work. I’ve no idea what that should be (I doubt it’s “a bit more money” though).

So yeah, religion played a role in providing social inclusion. Now that it no longer functions that way, and we’ve failed to replace it with anything, it simply stands to reason that social inclusion has been negatively affected. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.

However, I decided to put this theory to the test, and the United States is ripe for analysis. Tracking down a state-by-state breakdown of crime statistics is pretty simple (US States Crime 2004 -2005). However, tracking down a state-by-state breakdown of religiosity isn’t quite so simple. In the end I decided that — given we were taking a look at ‘godlessness’ — I’d use the American Religious Identification Survey (PDF file) carried out by the City University of New York in 2001 which provides a State by State Distribution of Selected Religious Groups (Table 15), including those who identify with “No Religion”. It is this group I compared against the crime stats. I’m assuming that both the crime stats and the religious stats are roughly typical, so the slight disparity in the years they were gathered shouldn’t prove too important.

The results were illuminating. Clearly there will be numerous factors influencing the crime statistics on a state-by-state basis, from quality of policing to economic conditions. I have focussed on violent crime in the hope of ruling out at least some of the economic influence on the statistics. Despite these other factors, however, I assume that those who link ‘godlessness’ with crime would argue that less violent crime should occur in those states with a low percentage of people who describe themselves as having “no religion”, while a high proportion of non-religious people in a state would correlate with a higher crime rate.

In fact, there’s absolutely no clear statistical correlation whatsoever. There’s some interesting blips, certainly. North Dakota has the highest proportion of religious people, and also has the lowest violent crime rate. Which is a pretty good start for the “godlessness equals crime” folks. But the state with the third highest proportion of religious people (South Carolina) has the highest violent crime rate of any state, with only the almost entirely urban District of Columbia beating it. And DC — whose violent crime rate is almost double that of South Carolina — is in the top quarter of the religious stats, while Washington state — the most godless of them all — is in the bottom third of the violent crime stats.

So while I accept that an increasing secularism could logically lead to greater social exclusion and a consequent rise in crime rates, the actual data from the United States shows little or no evidence for this.

NOTE: I’ll format the full stats for publication here if anyone wants them. Alternatively I can email the Excel spreadsheet to anyone who wants it… or make it available for download should someone request it.

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21
Jul 2007

When 'free speech' is just an excuse

Remember a couple of years back when right-wing Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, ran some controversial cartoons? There was a big kerfuffle about the whole thing… Imams in Denmark demanded that the government censure (and indeed censor) the newspaper; several groups of young men in Iran and elsewhere were filmed burning a variety of Scandanavian flags; and a popular boycott of Danish goods got organised in a few moslem nations.

Back in Europe this reaction was itself greeted with faux-shock. How dare they threaten our right to a free press! Bloody Islamofascists and their talk of a global caliphate! Soon we won’t be able to get a drink and our women will have to wear burqas! Except, of course, nobody was threatening our right to a free press. The Danish government never once entertained the idea of changing the law and punishing the paper. They made a few conciliatory statements for the benefit of the Danish Moslem minority (as you’d hope they would — given it was their job to ensure the situation didn’t escalate and create social unrest), but were abundantly clear on the point that the national press was free to publish cartoons mocking religion and religious figures if they so wished.

And that’s all as it should be. I fully support the right of Jyllands-Posten to publish those cartoons. It’s really important that I make that very clear. Because at the same time, I despise them for putting me in that position. The cartoons were shit. They were unfunny. Yes, even the “All out of virgins” one. It raised a smile only because of the sheer crapness of the company it found itself in. They had no redeeming artistic worth and none of them made a sharp or insightful point. In fact, the only possible reason that Jyllands-Posten had for publishing them was to offend the Danish moslem minority. I just don’t buy the claim that the merit in the cartoons is the iconoclasm involved. Publishing them in an Islamic country, as some editors later did… now that’s iconoclastic and challenges the established system. That’s a whole other statement. But publishing them in Denmark. That’s just belittling a specific minority.

And I hate the idea that I have to defend that in the name of free speech. Give me The Satanic Verses any day. I never finished it by the way — I don’t really get on with Baron Rushdie’s writing, but I accept that there may be merit in it.

As for the Danish boycott and token flag-burning? Let’s face it; it was all a bit half-hearted and clearly destined to fade fast. Despite the behaviour of their gutter press, Denmark just doesn’t have what it takes to inspire the kind of passion and hatred that, say, a Great Satan like the USA does.

Nothing surprising about the story so far… nasty newspaper prints desperately unfunny cartoons clearly aimed at offending and provoking a particular immigrant community (one that’s notoriously touchy and easy to provoke given the current global tension). The minority duly obliges; gets all offended, holds a few meetings, organises some protests and calls for a change in the law. The authorities (as usual) basically ignore the protesters, and except for the occasional scuffle between the police and those they deem to be “the extreme fringe”, it’s all a bunch of people shouting stuff. Nothing surprising, and roughly as far away from a genuine threat to Denmark’s free press as it’s possible to get.

Then however, something weird did happen. With no actual basis in fact, all across Europe columnists began claiming that freedom of the press was under threat. “Them beardy Imams!” they said, “They won’t stop until you can’t get a bacon sandwich east of Reykjavik.” And no matter how patiently you repeated the words; “Get a hold of yourself you twit. That’s not actually going to happen”; supposedly sentient beings were nonetheless using the words “Londonistan” and “Eurabia” without irony.

And then something very very weird happened. All over Europe — hell, all over the world — newspapers and magazines started to reprint the unfunny cartoons. 143 newspapers in 56 countries (according to this article here). The vast majority of whom were apparently making a statement about free speech. Vigorously defending the right of Jyllands-Posten to publish these cartoons. A right, let me reiterate, that was not under any actual threat.

I trust therefore, that some or all of those 143 newspapers in 56 countries will be reprinting the recently banned Spanish royal sex cartoon with all due haste? Here we have a cartoon that actually has been censored. A judge has ruled that it “insulted the royal family” which is against the law in Spain ( “Slandering or defaming the Spanish royal family carries a two-year prison sentence”)… a country, it should be pointed out, that was happy to allow the “Mohammed” cartoons published (they appeared in El Mundo, which has the second largest daily circulation).

Of course, the Spanish royal sex cartoon doesn’t have footage of youths burning flags to raise its profile, so I guess it would be unfair to expect all 143 aforementioned newspapers to pick up on this story. Nonetheless, given that this really is an assault on free speech (the authorities have ordered the seizure of the entire print-run!), whereas previously it was a powerless minority waving some placards, I’d expect quite a few of them to reprint the cartoon in solidarity with El Jueves magazine. Right?

Otherwise it would make their previous action look suspiciously like they were themselves more interested in sticking up two fingers at moslems than in some high-minded ‘freedom of the press’ schtick.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


28
Sep 2006

George Dubya's "Letters From America"

As has been hinted in the past, here at the Anarcho-Syndicalist Broadcasting Corporation we employ so-called “half-asleep agents” in key positions in many of the world’s mainstream media organisations. Along with our half-asleep agents in various governments and militaries, this allows us to develop a relatively accurate picture of who’s suppressing what and why. As Johann Rissle, co-founder of the ASBC, is fond of saying, “It ain’t worth knowing unless someone’s suppressing it.”

Now, you may recall some months ago the president of Iran (religious mentalist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) sent a letter to the president of America (religious mentalist, George Bush). At the time, I mentioned that there’d been a response from Dubya and that I was hoping to publish it on this blog.

Unfortunately the ASBC agent within the White House was compromised just prior to faxing a copy of the letter to us (in retrospect, the decision to use the Oval Office fax machine probably wasn’t the best one he’s ever made). I believed that was the end of the story and Dubya’s letter would remain a secret. You see, unlike Ahmadinejad, Bush wanted to keep his response out of the public eye. According to a leaked memo from the White House, President Bush was concerned “it might look a bit faggy” for him to be seen writing a letter to another man.

However fortune favours the lucky. A few days ago, thanks to the hard work of our half-asleep agent in the Shoraye Negahban, a copy of the letter has made it from Iran to ASBC HQ. Johann and myself have decided – despite the elapsed time – to leak it via this blog.

Dear Mahmoud,

Thanks for asking after Laura and the girls. Laura is fine. She’s just back from a short break in Costa Rica. I’d love to have gone with her as I hear the fishing is great down there. Unfortunately business kept me in Washington. I tell you Mahmoud, I work six, sometimes seven, hours a day, and even put in a half day some Saturdays, and still I can’t keep up with it all. Who’d have thought being president would be so time-consuming? I guess with Iran being so much smaller, you can probably get away with a three day week. It must be a bit like running a ball team or an oil company I imagine.

As for the kids… well Jenna and Barbara are a bit of a handful to be honest. They seem to have stayed out of trouble with the law recently, but I’m not sure how much of that’s down to the Secret Service hushing things up. Nobody tells me anything around here.

You know, I’ve often said that despite being evil and everything, you guys do have some good ideas. When I think of the trouble the twins have caused, I really believe we could learn a bit about treating womenfolk from you. Don’t mention I said that if you’re talking to Condi though. When I suggested it at a cabinet meeting a few weeks ago, she threw a right strop and stormed out. But as Rummy said later, she was probably having her period.

But look here Mahmoud, as nice as it is shooting the breeze with you and all, let’s get down to brass tacks. The United States of America has a sacred mission to safeguard truth, justice and democracy throughout the world. We shoulder this mission willingly, even though it is not without its burdens. At times many around the world (and at home) disagree with the methods we use to safeguard truth, justice and democracy. We become an object of distrust… even hatred. But we know our mission is vital to the future of the world, and we will continue to safeguard democracy no matter how many people disagree. We will continue until we have accomplished this mission.

For if not us, then who? The Russkis? I know you get on fairly well with them but come on Mahmoud! That place is on the verge of collapse. If they can’t get their own house in order, how can they be expected to safeguard democracy around the world? Their military is falling to pieces; nuclear subs sinking and the entire Red Navy unable to do anything about the stranded sailors; the naval base in Murmansk having the electricity cut off for non-payment of bills; and missile silos regularly left unguarded over the weekend. Their economy has been passed from one gangster to the next and now Putin is going all commie with nationalisation and what have you. And you can’t get a decent slice of pecan pie in the whole damn country.

The Chinese? Well, I think we can both agree that the world would be in a bad way if it was relying on China to safeguard truth and justice. They’re friends with North Korea; a place even more evil than your country (which is saying something). They have a human rights record that makes Gitmo – heck, even Abu Ghraib! – look tame. There was that Tiananmen Square thing. And we’re frankly rather unhappy with the way they’re driving up oil prices. Although I guess that’s one area you and me will have to agree to differ.

So you see Mahmoud, it really is up to us – the US – to be the world’s policeman, umpire and guardian. And I have to say that you folks in Iran are making that job far more difficult than it needs to be. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “But what are we going to do about Iran, Mr. President?” I’d be slightly richer than I already am (which is also saying something). It’s no secret that the people I was elected to serve want to see decisive action. In fact they told me that in no uncertain terms last time I met with them. “Mr. President”, they said, “we at the Halliburton Corporation want to see decisive action”.

And it’d be damned undemocratic of me to go against the wishes of my constituents, though I guess you wouldn’t understand that over in Iran. Nevertheless Mahmoud, as a Christian I’ve a duty to seek a peaceful solution to a problem before sending in the 5th Fleet. So here it is. Me, Rummy and Dick spent almost a full hour coming up with this list of demands. If you agree to implement them, I can almost guarantee that I won’t launch a series of devastating land, sea and air strikes against your major population centres and national infrastructure. Not only that, but I’ll try to talk the Israelis out of wiping you off the map with their nukes.

Here at the White House we feel these demands are more than fair (heck, you should hear some of Dick’s ideas that we ruled out). Firstly, it goes without saying that you cease all further nuclear research. It’s unacceptable for that technology to fall into the hands of evil Islamic fundamentalists. Secondly, your High Council of clerics must be disbanded. Political power needs to rest in the hands of those who have been elected, freely and fairly. I couldn’t honestly call myself a guardian of democracy if I didn’t insist on that one. Thirdly, you need to step down and allow exactly those free and fair elections I’m talking about to occur. Rummy has drawn up a shortlist of pro-democracy Iranian-Americans who will be glad to return to Iran, get elected, and take responsibility for the future of their homeland.

Once these three demands have been met it’ll be a cinch for the new, sensible, pro-democracy government of Iran to implement demands 4 through 62.

I hope you’ll agree that this plan is in the best interests of the people of Iran. After all, it does them no good at all to be a member of the Axis of Evil.

You take care of yourself, Mahmoud, and I look forward to your response.

All the best, George W. Bush (President).

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16
Sep 2006

Quoting dead emperors

You gotta hand it to Pope Ratzinger; whatever else he is, he’s a shrewd political operator. Whispers of anti-semitism arising from his short spell in Hitler’s employ needed to be nipped in the bud. And in these polarised times, there’s no better way to say “I Heart Judaism” than sticking it to the Muslims.

And stick it he most certainly did. I mean, quoting Manuel II Paleologus? What’s that all about, eh? There’s absolutely no reason at all to cite that old Muslim-basher other than to piss off Islamic theologians. Manuel II was a Byzantine emperor who, historically speaking, is chiefly remembered for two reasons… one; he temporarily halted the decline of the Byzantine Empire by restructuring its finances and consolidating its remaining power, and two; he didn’t like Muslims very much.

This second item is best illustrated by his decision to have the mosque in Constantinople razed to the ground in the early 1400s. And as the Pope recently reminded us, Manuel II had a less than respectful view of Mohammed. “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman…”

Now, it seems that the Pope chose to quote Manuel II in order to introduce the view that it is impossible to spread the Word of God through violence:

“God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats…

Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections – Pope Benedict XVI

But are we really being asked to believe that the Pope – given the contents of the Vatican Library – couldn’t find anyone better to illustrate his “God hates violence” point than a self-acknowledged Muslim-hater who destroyed mosques?

That Said…

I find the public outrage of Muslims bemusing to the point of amusing. It seems to me that the Pope – by virtue of being the leader of a global church numbering hundreds of millions of people dedicated to the principle that Jesus Christ was God and Mohammed was wrong about almost everything – is being waaay more offensive to Islam simply by existing than any citation of an almost forgotten 15th century emperor could ever be.

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