Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Completely Unfunny Posting

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

Phil Masters writes: Andrew recognises that the question of "Who is going to decide what's a reasonable compromise?" is difficult, but (being British) gets around this by making jokes about it.

So, three clergymen of different faiths are discussing the problem of evangelism. They agree that converting human beings to their respective credo is far too easy, and, by way of a challenge, they are going to preach to the animals, after the fashion of St Francis of Assisi. First, the Catholic goes out into the forest. He comes back terrible claw-marks on his face. "Sure, and that was a mighty difficult thing," he says."The first animal I met was a wild bear, to be sure, to be sure, and when I started to talk to it about the true faith, it jumped on me and started to maul me, so he did, to be sure." Did I mention that he was an Italian? "So I prayed to the blessed Virgin and all the saints not excluding Saint Theresa, and sure, the bear came and laid his head in my lap. We had a little talk, and he made an oral confession of his sin, and he has asked for instruction in the catholic faith." Next, it is the turn of the Baptist. He too goes into the forest, and he comes back with claw marks on his face, blood on his shirt, and tooth marks on his right arm. "Hallelujah!" he explains "Praise the Lord! He led me also unto a wild bear, and when I started to explain the doctrine of total depravity and the need for repentance unto the Lord, it leapt on me and started to maul me. But I laid my hands on its head, and ordered the spirit of disobedience to leave it. And the bear was convicted of sin there and then, and when it had finished speaking in tongues, we had an all night prayer meeting, and it is going to be baptised at the gospel meeting next Sunday." So finally the Rabbi goes out into the forest, only he doesn't come back at all. The other two wait and wait, and eventually they get a call from the hospital. They rush right over, and find the Rabbi with his leg in a cast, claw marks all over his face, plugged into a drip and a heart monitor. When he sees the Pastor and the Priest he opens one eye and murmurs "Have you ever tried circumcising one of those beasties?"

Which is as much as to say, being interpreted, sorry for attempting to inject levity into the subject of multi-cultural education in a post nine one one world. Because obviously, the readers of this website, all seventeen of them (well, eighteen if you count Eric; but I always feel he looketh and looketh and undestandeth not) come here primarily because of the value of my gnomic wisdom and not at all because they find it amusing. God knows, there are few enough places to read about religion and politics on the web.

Is gnomic wisdom the sort of wisdom that spends all day in the garden with a fishing rod in its hand, do you think? Or is it just very small wisdom? I may be straying from the point. The Archdruid thinks that there should be more laughter during Lent, apparently.

At any rate, I shall try to be as unfunny as possible.

"Andrew also slips into the complacent assumption that children have religions and beliefs of their own. I'm not sure that this is true, for practical purposes; at the risk of sounding D*wk*ns**n, parents have religions and beliefs, which they tend to want schools to inculcate. And there has to come a point where schools, being run primarily for the good of the children and partly for the good of society, may have to say "No, we won't help you brainwash your offspring, and we won't help you shield your offspring from contrary opinions to yours".

I am seriously – and not at all jokingly or complacently – considering announcing that if anyone uses the D-word, I shall consider all threads in this forum to have been Godwinned. Unless and until I get around to actually writing a review of his ruddy book, but I guess in fairness I'd have to read it first. (It's on my Amazon wish-list if anyone thinks this would add to measurably to the sum of human merriment.)

I also wonder, in an unfunny and not at all complacent way, whether the otherwise inexplicable lack of outrage that the fascist Daily Express engenders is a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. (Have I got that right? "My father's son" is me, so if "That man's father" is "my father's son" then that man's father is me so that man is my son. But it doesn't work if the barber is a woman. I'm wandering again.) So, for example, members of the Blairite junta may say "We can't help feeling a little sympathy for the the fascist Daily Express. After all, they are stirring up hatred towards and fear of Muslims, and the more people hate and fear Muslims, the easier it will be for us to bring in identity cards, increase surveillance, go to war with Iran, abolish Magna Carta, etc." And equally, members of the Dawkinsite cabal may say "We can't help feeling a little sympathy for the fascist Daily Express. After all, they are slagging off god botherers."

If I've understood this properly, then I have a large number of tiny little midichlorians in my head; and when I think I'm expressing an opinion or a point of view, what is actually happening is the little midichlorians are telling me what to think. (Or maybe there is no actual "me" at all; just a sort of sock puppet that the midichlorians live in. I seem to think that Descartes addressed this kind of problem as well, but presumably, what I mistook for the cogito is actually the midichlorians whispering sweet nothings to me.) I realise it's nothing personal: everyone is controlled by their midichlorians. Except Richard Dawkins, oddly.

I wasn't going to mention this -- the suspicion that some people may tolerate anti-Muslim writing because Islam is a religion and they don't like religions -- but I felt that Phil's use of the term "brainwashing" implies that we aren't using the Queensbury rules any more. "You gave yourself away very carelessly just then," as Frodo said to Gollum. Come to think of it, the "Noldor" were originally called "Gnomes", so perhaps it means "Elvish wisdom"?

Some people – the Archbishop of York, for example – have suspected for a while that people who are reluctant to accommodate Muslims in state schools have a hidden agenda: they would really like to use the state education system to further their agenda of suppressing the open expression of religion of any kind, which is presumably the first part of pincer movement with a view to suppressing religion altogether. I don't say that Phil has gone this far. I merely point out that there is an interesting slippage from "I would like my child to be excused from cross-country runs, because cross-country runs are taboo in my religion" to "Parents want schools to inculcate their beliefs" and from "We will not necessarily accommodate your religious prohibitions under all circumstances: it depends on on how important the "no cross-country" taboo is to members of the First Church of Christ, Smoker, and how essential cross-country runs are to our educational objectives" to "Schools are run for the good of society and won't help parents brainwash their children."

Oh, and the buried assumption that "run for the benefit of the child" and "inculcating their parents religious beliefs" are necessarily in conflict.

We could, at this point, discuss whether "sport" is in fact an essential part of "education"; and even if it is, whether "sport" necessarily involves taking group showers; and even if it does, whether gym teachers have to be recruited only from among the paedophile community. But we aren't going to.

Dawkins major fallacy – one of Dawkins major fallacies – one of Dawkins many major fallacies – is his belief that "religion" is primarily an opinion; indeed, that it is primarily an opinion about the process by which different species arose on earth. If this were correct, then it would follow that no-one under the age of, say, nine and three-quarters could have an informed and valid opinion, and therefore that it is meaningless to talk about a "Christian Child", a "Darwinist Child" or a "Jewish Child." A child isn't quite a person in the required sense, but more a sort of squidgy pool of potential personhood: an hommlette as Lacan so memorably put it. (That's a French joke, and not funny, so it doesn't count.) The specifics I am unclear about: do we give children no information about life on earth, or indeed Life on Earth before their tenth birthdays, and then give them unbiased accounts of Darwinism and Young Earth Creationism, let them make up their own minds, and then ship them off to the Granny Goodness Home For Philosopher Kings? Or is the idea that if you meticulously shield them from the midichlorians they will spontaneously become Darwinists without anyone needing to teach them? (Come to think of it Pascal worked out Euclid from first principles in his bedroom, having been been banned from studying geometry by his father for presumably good reasons, but then Pascal was infested with the mind virus and doesn't count.) I mean, I'm taking it as red that teaching young children about Darwinism --or indeed anything else-- would be a form of child abuse? I think I've wandered off the point again.

Five minutes of actual thought would demonstrate that we use terms like "Christian", and "Jewish" in a variety of different ways. "Jewish cooking" doesn't mean cooking which is descended from Abraham down the maternal line. "A Christian action" isn't necessarily one in accordance with the idea that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Christian art isn't necessarily art which has a tendency to facilitate the feeding of the sick, the clothing of the naked, the visiting of those in prison and which ever one I've forgotten. If I say "I think you should arrange your time table so that Muslim children can pray at Muslim prayer times", and "I think you should arrange your canteen so that there is something that Jewish children are allowed to eat"; then "Jewish child" is a shorter way of spelling "child who is being raised in accordance with Jewish traditions."

We could ask interesting philosophical questions about what it means for a small child to have "beliefs" of any kind. A child might say that she believed in Santa, and be very, very sad if she were not allowed to hang her stocking up (to the extent that taking the stocking away would constitute mental cruelty); but if you pressed her, she would probably not think that Santa has the same ontological qualities that Mummy and Daddy do. She might also have a belief that there is such a place as New York, even though her reasons for believing it may be philosophically weak. Road to Larissa and all that.

Even in an adult "being Jewish" or "being C of E" may be very important, but not actually imply the existence of a philosophical or theological opinion. One quite often meets people who say "No, I don't really believe that there is such a person as YHWH; but that doesn't mean that I'm going to allow any son of mine to have a foreskin." The archbishop of Canterbury appears to be in this category. (About God, I mean, not foreskins.)

We could have an interesting discussion about whether doctors ought to perform irreversible cosmetic surgery on young children even if their parents think it is very important. But we aren't going to.

In practical terms, we don't need to bring Nobdaddy or Galactus into the equation at all. I am, by conviction, a vegetarian. My five year old, by hypothesis, has no convictions one way or the other, although he has habits and expectations, and might be very, very sad if he though he was eating baa-lambs and moo-cows. I hand my child over to The State for part of each day: is it reasonable of me to say "I require that my son be given no meat, because that is my conviction and it will make him very very sad." I used to naively think that everyone thought the answer was "Yes, provided it isn't actually harming the kid or making it impossible for us to educate him." It appears that a reasonable body of opinion now thinks: "If you are going to live in England, you must live exclusively according to a English customs, which have always included the consumption of large ammounts of roast beef." (Well, they have.) And just possibly a less reasonable body which says "Provided you dislike meat in a secular way, then we are prepared to give your baby lentil stew; but if you think that a Supreme Being agrees with your opinions, then we are giving the brat turkey twizzlers."

Granted, some people think that any kind of religious belief whatsoever is "harming" children; and any kind of religious belief whatsoever makes education impossible. I don't propose to have the argument all over again. I merely point out that actively using schools as tool to suppress religious belief is just as much an ideological decision as using them to promote a particular religion and, in my view, wrong for the same reasons. Perhaps ideologically neutral schools are, in fact, impossible and "state education" necessarily implies "the abolition of the church." But I haven't heard anyone making this case.

(NOTE: To say that "suppressing religious" and "promoting religious" are both ideological positions is not the same as saying "atheism is a faith position". The latter is a rhetorical device sometimes used by Christians; very entertaining if you like watching secularists foam at the mouth with rage, but not actually true.)

Actually, the difficult question isn't "What if the children don't have opinions and beliefs?" but "What if they do?" What if the parent wants the child to be given veggie food, but the kid wants beefburgers? What if the parents have a philosophical objection to corporal punishment but the kid would just as soon be slapped and get it over with? How does a child with a relatively limited vocabularly put his ideological opinion across to adults in authority? Would we pay any attention to him if he did? Should we?

"There's also the problem that accommodating one group's rules and beliefs could be offensive or harmful to another, in a very practical way. For example, we're lucky in Britain in that - I think - most people recognise that creationism is a bit silly, and would say that Young Earth creationism is goofy to the point of justifying vulgar abuse. However, there are places in the rest of the world where people take these things seriously, and not only claim the right to withdraw their sprogs from lessons in which Darwin is mentioned (which is close enough to abuse in my book), but want creationism taught in schools. Whereas, if I had children, I'd regard any school which so much as mentioned the bloody idea in science classes as flatly unacceptable for them. That makes it impossible for any school to act in a way that's acceptable to both sets of people; one lot regards science lessons without creationism as immoral, and one lot has the exact opposite position. And merely permitting parents to withdraw their offspring from specific science lessons isn't going to work, because (a) it generates problems about the nature of truth, and more importantly (b) it generates problems when exams come around with questions about what was taught during the previous term."

I don't see what you've done here except demonstrate that as well as hard cases, there are very easy ones. "On non-essential matters, parents have a right to have their religious beliefs respected. It is impossible to teach biology without teaching evolution. Therefore, the teaching of evolution is not a non-essential matter. Therefore, the religious opinions of parents are in this case irrelevant."

To summarize.

I have a position which involves the belief in non-subjective morality, a personal God, and the mythology of the Incarnation. I wish to encourage people to believe in that position, because I happen to think – oh dear I am beginning to sound like Tony – because I happen to think that it is true. But I have -- what many people seem to lack and some even find hard to conceive of -- a meta-position. My meta-position says says "Not everyone agrees with me; and I would sooner find ways of accommodating the people who don't agree with me than go for some kind of Hegelian absolutism where the person with the biggest stick decides what is true that week."

I also note that a lot of what we are talking about are not so much ideologies or beliefs but taboos, cultural practices, customs; traditions. I know that it can be very painful when someone makes me break one of my taboos. So I think we should be very, very careful about forcing other people to break theirs.

And the most important point is this. If we excuse religious kids from P.E lessons and let them keep their knickers on in the shower, it will really piss off all the P.E teachers. Which is surely the most important test for any educational policy?

But, of course, I'm infected with midichlorians so there is no reason to listen to anything I say.

You've been a wonderful audience. Thank you and good night.