Religion as an Anachronism

Posted in Uncategorized by sapere_aude on April 19, 2009

Probably as a result of the upcoming exams, my blog entries will now tend to be more terse.

A recent discussion over the miscalculations of Pope Benedict XVI has led many to re-evaluate the relevance of Catholicism in contemporary British affairs. There were calls,- mainly from fellow Catholics during a recent BBC1 debate, for a stricter scrutiny of the words and actions of the Pope. Controversial topics have recently been raised, notably anti-semitism (pointing out the glaring inconsistency of his stance on this matter) as well as homophobia and contraception.      However fellow Christian conservatives seek to protect the Pope from criticism by stating that at least he is ‘faithful’ to the original doctrines and adheres to orthodox practice. Not only does this take away any moral autonomy from ‘moderate’ Christians, but it also relies for its effect by romanticising the ecclesiastical practices prevalent thousands of years ago. To make a very unsubtle point, at least Christian or Islamic fundamentalists actually believe in what they say they do (though the actions taken are often morally repugnant.)   This ‘faith’ must be contrasted with the almost metaphoric interpretations of ‘moderates’ who are quick to take credit for charming parables in the new testament but become uneasy when any references to the book of Job are made, and at best consider it a problematic allegory. That double-standards are applied to scriptures, suggests to me that religion is an anachronism. 

Present day Britain bears no resemblence the context in which the New or Old Testaments were written. At best religion (as oppose to religiosity) is a form of conservatism ; a willing regress back to ‘simpler’ and more  nostalgic times. For all the talk of ‘broken society’ in our post-industrial state, this accounts for the growing potency of religion amongst young people (although paradoxically new scientific and anthropologic discoveries being made undermine this.) For many people, the now rare term of ‘good christian’  often equates to ‘charity’, ‘humility’, ‘conservatism’ etc – yet with an abundant supply of atheistic literature these received truths are being questioned.    Following the revival of humanism and atheism (Bertrand Russel’s ‘Why I am not a Christian’ being the earliest text I was aquainted with) we have seen an intellectual and rational repudiation of the scriptures on both a metaphysical and a moral level.

This makes Pope Benedict XVI’s public condemnation of anti-semitism and the contradictory reinstatement of a Holocaust-denying Bishop even more problematic.  Both religion and politics can be said vie for influence in society. However if allegations had been made that a Cabinet Minister had made anti-semitic comments (allegations that we later find out to be true) do you not believe that the Prime Minister would not call for his/her resignation? When you consider the severity of Holocaust-Denial it almost renders the Damian McBride affair trivial. Of the two main social influences in society – one is accountable and one is not.

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that ”[religious states] are sustained by the ancient ordinances of religion, which are so all-powerful, and of such a character that the principalities may be held no matter how their princes behave and live”. – These ‘boundaries’ although less pronounced, are still present five-hundred years later – However we are now better educated, there is less poverty, we have made medical advances, we are more tolerant, we all retain political power etc.. the structure of society has changed.
 Picking and mixing the Christian soundbites which one ‘moderate’ Christian wishes to live their life by, suggests that there is a criterion with which to ‘pick’ –  thus fundamentally undermining any religious claims of moral superiority. On the other hand, the ‘blind faith of absolutist sects’ (to use Hitchens’ phrase) is also dangerous when considering the activities and plots of militant fundamentalists.
     Some still posit that ‘religiosity’ is an inherent emotion in humans. Perhaps this awe for the supernatural may account for the successes of organised religion. But as I have said, the faith of ‘moderates’ is no longer looked upon as favourable because humanists can derive the same values without reference to scriptural authority (and they retain the benefit of pragmatism). Also the faith of fundamentalists is equally irrelevant in this day and age; it is used to justify oppressive regimes, the subordination of women and sectional conflicts. Religious values, (or rather the values espoused by those who subscribe to monotheistic belief) do differ greatly from the collective consensus of values amongst moderates and humanists. Therefore should it not be considered anachronistic?

‘Free creation’ within the constraints of the state

Posted in Uncategorized by sapere_aude on April 16, 2009

I recently watched a debate  between Noam Chomsky (linguist, public intellectual and advocate of ‘anarcho-synicalism’) and the French social theorist Michel Foucault from 1971. Something interested me when Chomsky differentiated between inherent human interests and political institutions, suggesting that the two were incompatible. He emphasises a ‘fundamental need’ in humans to participate in what he calls ‘free creative enquiry’. (In Marxist circles the term ‘creative’ can be attached to romantic notions of labour and often remains deliberately ambiguous)

 Chomsky, However, points out the societal constraints against this human urge – he identifies these as being the ‘arbitrary limiting effects of coercive institutions’. His underlying motives account for this damning critique of government as he seeks to propose an essentially anarcho-syndicalist model of society instead, based on a utopianvision of mutual aid ordered by collective trade unions. However, Chomsky does raise a valid question as to why ‘creative enquiry’ cannot be reconciled with the interests of the state. Are both ‘forces’ not essentially man-made?

The most accessible way of gauging where these duties of both state and individual lie is through a study of the constitution (Although the UK is a slight exception in this respect.) Yet what has always striked me as odd, in terms of the teaching of politics, is that a study of the constitution is often presented as the most tedious and dry aspect of courses. By far the best way to create political polarisation is by proposing constitutional ammendments, prompting questions as to the legitimacy of traditional authority which touches a raw nerve with the Right. – It is this that leads Foucault to seek a re-evaluation of the state ; citizens need to do more than just accept a predetermined system.

 If you consider the intricate framework in which societies operate – a study of  a constitution (with its plethora of obscure ad hoc ammendments) reinforces the often forgotten fact that this is wholly man-made. Over great periods of time, certain blueprints for societies and judicial systems have gradually become entrenched – in the form of statute laws, historical conventions etc. This results in a preordained and inherited system (or in the case of colonies – often an imposed system) which citizens are alienated from and feel little responsibility to. As governmental procedures cannot be effectively combatted with the means of the average citizen, As official written documents often remain esoteric, any sense of popular empowerment is lost. (I would be tempted to link this to the voter apathy that is especially prevalent in younger generations at a risk of biting off more than I can chew.)    Why are initiatives to involve greater numbers of people in politics ultimately futile? – especially when the sovereignty of the state is theoretically vested in the ‘people’? 

At this point I try to remain open when attempting to answer why this is the case, and not seek the easy answers voiced by Leftists. Marxist rhetoricians often talk of the political and economic ‘hegemony’ of the dominant classes which subordinates the proletariat. It is easy to see how Marx’s concept of the workers’ alienation from his product, can easily encorporate a political dimension… i.e. -The worker is also alienated from political activity. (Although this new approach to Marxist thought is somewhat anachronistic; proletarian suffrage in the 19thcentury was virtually unheard of)  This theory has now become more sophisticated.In a more modern context Foucault cites the example of government involvement in the ‘appareil scholaire’ (education system) as a means of entrenching  their political and cultural interests and ‘distributing’ it to the next generation. Foucault’s draconian image of the state/individual relationship relies for its effect on a propaganda of victimisation, that is often unhelpful and obscures the central question being addressed.

Yet we are now in the 21st century; the prospect of ‘spontaneous revolution’ is as distant as ever (- Although far-fetched columnists cling to hopes of a Thatcherite regress and frenzied syndicalist activity in light of the current economic state of affairs.) Through the labyrinthine structures of Parliament and the bureaucratic nature of the state -Politics are becoming dehumanised. All this talk of the conflicting interests of the state and individual overlooks a crucial point ; both are essentially within our control and need to be put within the reach of the average citizen. Foucault sets society the task of criticising the workings of institutions (”de critiquer le jeux des institutions”) to come to some sort of re-evaluation.

The Dubious Origins of ‘Political Correctness’

Posted in Uncategorized by sapere_aude on April 6, 2009

A lot of the ideas (or dare I say ‘myths’) of political correctness seem to have very dubious origins.

People often comment that- ‘ You aren’t allowed to say _(whiteboard, ba ba blacksheep, substitute to taste)_ anymore because it can cause offence’. On one very simple level, what is it about these examples that has only led people to assume that they are offensive now? Is it perhaps because people actively go looking to find a new taboo and if this is the case – should we not question their motives?

What is more -the sources of these ubiquitous myths seem often to be missing. Is there a social or media police that decides on this – it is a collective consciousness? (For fear of advancing an almost Orwellian conspiracy, I must state that I dont think it is).  Is it the ‘minorities’ speaking up? Or more interestingly is it used by those who deplore political correctness to such an extent  that they fabricate these myths themselves to provide a counter-argument to their own views ; citing and subsequently attacking the very examples they create?

This happens in just in the same way that Euromyths concerning EU ‘banana regulations’ (in the hope to portray the EU as bureaucratic, pendantic and trivial) are often circulated by eurosceptics. The infantile alliteration of ”Brussels bureaucrats ban bananas!” seeks to solidify myths and received opinions into hard facts, an advancing a political argument that is flawed from the outset. 

This ‘Straw Man’ approach to the question of political correctness is often overlooked.  Even the wording of the term – ‘political correctness’ (often arbitrarily capitalised) suggests a need to reaffirm itself by giving it a semblance of rigour by giving it an attachment to ‘politics’ and governmental institutions.

I am all for a more carefully considered approach towards how people present issues of race, gender and sexuality; trying to limit any unnecessary offence caused. However this should not interfere with ones right to free speech, and I think an overemphasis on political correctness is not the right way to do it. By placing limits on what people are allowed to say or think, this does not make them more sympathetic to your cause, it more often has a claustrophobic effect on them.  I have noticed that in extreme cases this mutates into frustrated nationalism, thus ‘political correctness’ has a tendency to increase tensions further.

Blair, Machiavelli and God

Posted in Uncategorized by sapere_aude on April 3, 2009

A reply to: Metro article 20/03/09 – ‘Leaders ‘must do God’ – Blair

 Tony Blair yesterday said world leaders must ‘do God’ to engage with the modern world. The ex-prime minister, whose spin doctor Alistair Campbell famously said ‘We don’t do God’, claimed faith was as key to this century as political ideology was to the last. He added ‘Leaders, religious or not, have to “do God”.’

In this recent article, I picked up on hints towards the rhetoric of a certain renaissance political philosopher. Was it not Machiavelli who wrote, in 1513 ‘It is necessary to cultivate the appearance of a God’? However, Machiavelli states it less ambiguously than the crude cultural relativist, Blair.

 At the heart of New Labour are seeming principles of ‘equality’ and ‘respect'(although the latter chimes also with unfashionable ‘Middle England’ Daily Mail rhetoric that Blair sought to distance himself from) But Blair does not realise the implications of ‘doing God’ (as he so elequently puts it) – as this could range from decent liberal ‘churchgoing’ but by definition it must also encompass the militant Islamofascism and inter-community warfare of Northern Ireland. The ‘irresponsible parent’ analogy of the hip over-liberal parent who allow their children  to ‘test the waters’ by smoking cannabis  only to foreshadow a later life-long habit of narcotics, is one that springs to mind here.

Blair,as is typical of many fathers living a midlife crisis, is simply too ‘cool’. The ‘down with the kids’ approach of appeasement is at best cringeworthyand at worst politically damaging.  The nonchalance with which Blair comments ‘Leaders have to do God’, is a symptom of the ideological malaise that many attribute to the dropping of Clause 4 in 1995. Labour – as in the ‘real’ Labour attributed to Fabians, Webb-ites and Benn-ites ceasing to exist. The compassionate Tory paternalism and trendy multiculturalism that ‘New Labour’ embraced so fervently, some speculate, marks the ‘end of ideology’.

 What is more, in attempts to involve the apathetic and ethnic minorities (by all means a good thing) Blair and Giddens’ brainchild – ‘New Labour’ is counterproductive. In an attempt to include all aspects of society within one mediocre and watered down mass movement, this realignment in the centre-ground of politics perhaps increases voter fatigue further. Cultural relativism or as E.P. Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity‘ rejects the notion of a’truth’ rendering all search for absolute truths and concrete meanings futile. Leaders must do God because if they do not, their liberal credentials and ‘tolerance’ are doubted by the left (and they are ultimately rendered unelectable on the right). That the idea of ‘doing God’ can contradict the enlightenment values we cherish, and that a tolerance of intolerance is clearly absurd, is not a concept that Blair and his New Labour predecessors have grasped on to.

When Machiavelli talks of the role of divinity in politics, this is ‘realpolitik’, (and this must of course be considered in a 16th Century context) but when Blair attempts to tackle the subject there is an air of fatalism that is bordering on arrogance. Perhaps this was where ‘New Labour’ went wrong. Behind Campbell’s spin we feel that we are admiring the ’emperor’s new clothes’. Will this issue will be resolved by Brown? Unlikely, as he is hardly the most personable of characters (making the trendy-yet-cringeworthy cult of Blair almost bearable by comparison)  Brown’s stout insensitivity surrounding such a contentious subject as religion could, if uncarefully worded, prompt the shortest political suicide note in history.

Hello world!

Posted in Uncategorized by sapere_aude on April 3, 2009

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