Christianity is not a rational religion

A correspondent in the last issue of the Courier asked that I might consider what the strongest arguments against Christianity might be. I’m not going to answer that in this column, but I do want to write about why I think there is a mistaken assumption in the question. For I do not believe that Christianity is ultimately a matter of good arguments against bad arguments, however good I consider the arguments in favour of Christianity to be. I do not believe that it is possible to be reasoned into a Christian belief, nor do I believe it is possible to be reasoned out of it. To think that this might be the case is to place reason into a position that it is incapable of occupying, and I’d like to explore why.

I believe that it is possible to make an intellectually coherent system from any set of initial assumptions. It is possible to be both an intellectually coherent Marxist and an intellectually coherent Nazi (not at the same time of course); it is possible to be an intellectually coherent Buddhist and an intellectually coherent Muslim; it is possible to be an intellectually coherent Christian and an intellectually coherent atheist. In other words, to be intellectually coherent is not the same as being in possession of the full truth, it is merely a question of pointing out a consistency, that the conclusions of what is believed match up with the starting points of what is believed. Not many people actually achieve this of course – those that do tend to be called fundamentalists of one stripe or another. As Wittgenstein once put it, “The difficulty is to realise the groundlessness of our believing.” That is a comment which applies to all forms of believing, not just religious ones.

The pursuit of perfect intellectual coherence is ultimately a delusion, for all our understandings are destined to be incomplete and partial. Mathematically this has been proven (by Gödel), that even the most beautifully fine tuned intellectual system must be incomplete. So, in so far as you believe that mathematics has the capacity to reflect reality then you are equally bound to accept the limits to that.

The key issue, of course, is about the initial assumptions. How do we decide the premises on which we base our thinking? If it is possible to be intellectually coherent across various diverse and contradictory belief systems, how can we choose amongst them? Well, I am rather dubious that we do so ‘choose’. In Wittgenstein’s ‘On Certainty’ he wrote “I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.” In other words, our most basic beliefs are not the product of ratiocination, of some sort of armchair based abstract theorising. Rather, all of our thinking takes place within a world view that is already given to us.

Consider how important to our beliefs is the language in which they are expressed. It is a commonplace to say that some words cannot be translated – how then can we ‘choose’ what we believe if some things simply cannot be stated within the language that we have inherited? No, the language that we speak is something given to us independently of our choice; similarly, the patterns of life into which we are formed, the habits that we depend upon to go about our daily lives, all the moral and ethical expectations that society places on us from before our birth – all these things form our ‘inherited background’. (Which is why, by the way, the baptism of infants makes sense – it is promising to establish that background rather than leaving it to the world to fill the gap – but that is another argument).

Is it possible for such an inherited background to change? Yes, it is, but it is not something that can be done purely by reason, although reason can be an immensely useful and healing tool to assist in a process of change. Rather, to change such an inherited background is more like the process of falling in love in that it is something that involves the whole of us, all of our passions and deepest concerns, and not just simply our capacity to intellectually reflect.

Possibly the most influential atheist in our intellectual tradition was David Hume, who wrote that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Our beliefs change when our passions change, and our passions only change when something significant happens within our life. For our most fundamental beliefs to change, something similarly fundamental needs to have happened to our lives – a bereavement perhaps, or a personal crisis of another sort. In essence, we need to experience something for which our ‘inherited background’ way of thinking is inadequate; to put it colloquially, we need to have our minds blown by a particular event.

Such events have to involve us as fully human beings, all our passions and desires, loves and hatreds, fears and joys. The closer we come to consideration of such things, the closer we come to being able to change our inherited backgrounds. Which is why it is so essential that the humanities remain central to a civilisation, and why a proper understanding of tragedy is the foundation of all sustainable political resistance. What is most often misunderstood about Christian faith is that it is seen as being in competition with physics or chemistry, that it is offering a scientific description of the way that the world works. That is not where the centre of gravity of faith lies. Rather, the religious point of view is about the ordering of our passions, interrogating our desires in order to find the ‘one thing needful’ that puts everything else into its proper place and enables us to live life abundantly.

Let me put it like this. If you really want to understand the Christian faith, you’re better off pondering the state sponsored execution of an innocent man, and all the issues about a meaningful life that are raised by that, rather than the logical consistency of omnipotence and omniscience. Christianity is not in competition with physics. It is in competition with Sophocles and Shakespeare, or, these days (given the utter impoverishment of our culture) it is in competition with EastEnders and The X Factor. In other words, it is telling a different story about what it means to live well within the world. The great tragedians tell one story; modern soaps and reality television tell another; Christianity tells a third. We need to decide which one we actually believe in, and then live life accordingly.
MelGibsonPassionMovie_NailHand

Of Greeks, Barbarians and smooth ball bearings

barbarianI write this a few days after the resounding ‘Oxi’ from the Greek people to the demands from the Troika. In previous years the EU has been able to overturn the results of referenda when they didn’t go in the direction wanted (as with Ireland and Denmark); something tells me that this won’t be possible this time.

Which means that there is every chance that the Greeks will leave the common currency very soon; that will be a glorious and happy day. The setting up of the Euro as a common currency was a politically driven project. It was argued for as a step towards a single state, with a common fiscal and monetary policy. The fact that a common currency wouldn’t be able to function without a central authority implementing those common policies was pointed out at the time, along with predictions of disaster if a single currency was put in place without such a central authority. Sadly such predictions were ignored, and those making them were ridiculed and marginalised, and now we are where it was reasonable to expect us to be.

There is something about a common currency which is akin to a common language. Where there is a common language then the difficulties in communicating are (mostly) removed, and it is possible for speech to flow freely between different people. In the same way, a common currency removes barriers that hinder or prevent trade between different people. Those who share in the common currency share in a common pattern of life, a common civilisation.

The word ‘barbarian’ comes from Ancient Greek usage. It originally referred to a ‘tribal’ people, who were outside the ‘polites’, civilisation (think of it as ‘polite society’). So the barbarians were those who didn’t speek the Greek language and ‘babbled’. Over time it developed the additional meaning of someone who was simply uncivilised or uneducated, and it therefore became a term of abuse within Athenian politics. The barbarian was the person who didn’t share civilised values, who behaved like a monster – hence our inherited meaning of the word ‘barbarian’ today.

Yet who are the barbarians now? I notice, for example, that the cost of a full ‘bail-out’ for the Greek government is estimated at being some 320 billion Euros (I don’t want to say too much about the origin and responsibility for that debt, only to point out that it was accrued in order to save French and German banks, amongst others). Now compare that sum of 320 bn to the sums given in recent memory to the banking system, in order to preserve their private status. The UK government in September 2008 announced a total funding package of 500 billion pounds in order to preserve the financial industry. The US government’s total outlay on a financial rescue package, not including guarantees to institutions, is well over 5 trillion dollars. Barclays Bank alone, which boasted of not having to be bailed out, in the end received over £550 billion pounds of subsidy.

In other words, the actual cost of simply writing off all of the Greek debt would be small change compared to the enormous sums of money that have been used in recent years to prop up the world financial system. The decision on whether to help the Greek government out of its financial distress is a purely political decision, not a financial one. The decision is all about whether the Greek people are part of ‘us’ – the civilised world deserving of civilised care – or whether they are part of ‘them’ – barbarians, best left to their own devices, stewing in their own juice.

Clearly the mood in Northern Europe is to chastise the Greeks for borrowing profligately and spending recklessly, leaving those Northern Europeans to warm themselves with their own sense of pride in their fiscal rectitude. Of course, if we were thinking about proper fiscal virtue then banks that made reckless loans would be required to meet the costs of those loans themselves when they failed. A proper banker would exercise prudence and caution and assess whether someone who was borrowing money was in fact able to pay it back over time. This did not happen, for the simple reason that the Northern European economies did very nicely, thank you, out of an exchange rate that was much lower than it would otherwise have been, because it included less developed economies like Greece.

Surely it is now obvious to even the most obtuse observer that the EU is a system set up to further the interests of global financial capitalism? That it has very little to do with civilised values, and much more to do with making the world safe for the free flow of money? Rather than talking about barbarians, I keep thinking about ball bearings – those small, weight bearing spheres that need to be lubricated in order to keep the machinery working smoothly. That is what modern capitalism requires, to remove all the obstacles and friction that get in the way of the efficient workings of the market. Get rid of different languages, different currencies, different customs in order that the marginal cost of production can be reduced by the extra fraction of a percentage that maximises share holder value!

The suffering that this is causing to the people of Greece is starting to become clear. The people of Greece, not the bankers of Greece or the politicians of Greece, but the people of Greece are the ones who are going to be losing their jobs, deprived of medicines, worrying about where their food is going to come from. So where is civilisation? Do we really want to stay in such a system, that has such contempt for civilised values? Who are the barbarians now?

It amazes me when I hear progressive friends apologising for the barbarity that is the necessary consequence of the way that the EU has been structured. I only hope that enough people can see the truth about the beast that we also say a resounding ‘oxi’ when we get the opportunity.

A few thoughts about Game of Thrones

Lots of spoilers after the picture – be warned!

jon snow

So I’ve been thinking about Game of Thrones, most especially the differences between the books and the TV show, but also what might come along in the future.

It’s very rare for me to think of a TV or film being better than the books, but this may be one of those occasions – I won’t have a final view until both forms are finished. I think that the TV show is definitely benefiting from a forced economy of story line, which keeps things ticking over. Yet there are some elements where, despite the verbiage and distraction, Martin has got some wonderful things that the TV show either cannot or has not shared.

I miss Lady Stoneheart. I am looking forward to the resolution of her plot in the books.

I miss the emphasis on warging by the Stark children, most especially with Jon.

I miss the detailed POV account of Arya in the house of black and white, although here I think the show is doing reasonably well.

I miss Jaime in the Riverlands, and the way in which that aspect of the plot is working out (and the different way in which the Dorne plot has been taken through). I have a very romantic desire to see Jaime and Brienne end up together – alive and married and having children!

I don’t particularly like the different path show-Sansa has taken compared to book-Sansa.

I don’t miss the ‘young Griff’ stuff. I’m not sure anybody does.

I love the show though…

Yet what next? I keep thinking about Jon Snow, and what has happened to him, and whether and how he might come back in the next book/next season. For Jon to be dead – as in, definitely, finally, no coming back in any form dead – would mean that GRRM is a bad creator, and I do not think that he is that.

Quite how this is done I find a fascinating conjecture. Personally I don’t think that it can happen until the wall has fallen down – and I wonder whether the betrayal of Jon and the associated betrayal of the vows by the Night’s Watch – is what ‘undoes’ the magic of the wall and leads to the southern Ingress of the Others (love what the TV show has done on them). I don’t recall the horn of Joramun being mentioned on the show, but I could be wrong on that. Oh yes, another bit I enjoyed in the books – the sailors from the Iron Islands heading for Meereen.

Hmm. Yes. The show is brilliant – but actually, there is a lot in the books that hasn’t been incorporated, and it isn’t all lists of food eaten or long boring journeys along a river….

The paradoxes of progressive thought

There is a particular way of viewing the world which has been, in my view, dominant in our society for the last forty years or so. It is the mindset that has largely governed our political leadership and also much of our media; it is certainly entrenched in the BBC. As a shorthand I want to call it ‘progressive thought’ as it is tied up with all the various causes that are seen as being righteous today, so anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-Islamophobia, anti-homophobia and so on. These are good causes, of course, but it seems to me that there are contradictions embedded in this bien pensant worldview that are now becoming inescapable.

The first, on which I have written in these pages before, relates to immigration, and the fostering of a tolerant and diverse society. It is a good thing to welcome the stranger and the refugee and to provide a home to those who are in dire need. There is good Biblical instruction on this, in both Old and New Testaments. The paradox comes when that welcome becomes ultimately self-defeating, in that the embrace of the stranger fosters a culture which is itself intolerant of diversity. The most prominent form of this is the ‘hate preacher’, commonly found in the Saudi-funded institutions that have arisen here in the last few decades. It has also, I would argue had an effect in other ways in places like Rotherham, where a politically correct attitude has inhibited a vigorous investigation of systematic child abuse. For fear of appearing racist, appalling crimes were allowed to proceed unchecked. The progressive approach wants to avoid both racism and sexism and Islamophobia. Reality, sadly, does not cooperate with such an ambition, and we are being forced to choose.

The second paradox I want to draw attention to arises from a particular story in the United States recently, concerning a woman called Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal was, until a few weeks ago, the area president in Spokane, Washington State, for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This after a career and training focussing on black culture and advocacy. Dolezal was forced to resign after her parents ‘outed’ her as being, in fact, a white woman presenting herself as being a black woman.

Before and after

Before and after

I find this fascinating because it embodies in one person a further contradiction in the progressive world view. As I recall, in the various racist institutions of the American South, the purity of your bloodline was tremendously important, and ‘one drop of black’ meant that you were non-white (the Nazis were slightly less extreme, as they only went back as far as grandparents when assessing race). Now it would seem that, from the progressive perspective, the purity of your bloodline is equally important. You can only work for a progressive institution – and nobody is doubting that Dolezal was doing a good job – if you qualify under the nostrums of racial purity. As I was once told by an African-American Marxist, racism is the belief that there are different races. As soon as you adhere to that point of view then all sorts of follies necessarily follow.

Underlying the Dolezal story, though, is a deeper question about how far it is possible to ‘remake’ ourselves, so that we establish an identity which is in keeping with our deepest motivations even when such an identity seems to go against that which has been set at the biological level. For Dolezal there seems to have been a very sincere and profound identification with African American culture, no doubt strongly influenced by the fact that her parents adopted four African American children with whom she grew up. Since then she has clearly lived her life as an African American woman, to the extent of changing her appearance to fit in with that culture.

This remaking is finding greater salience with the rising prominence of ‘trans’ issues, whereby people are able to change their biological inheritance to be more in accord with their own self-perception of identity. Some of the fiercest criticisms of this development have come from a particular strand of feminist thinking, which insists that even when obvious physical signs are changed, someone with a certain chromosomal pattern will always and forever remain what that chromosomal pattern dictates for them to be. In other words, there is something essential about being male or female that cannot be changed, no matter what else happens. One drop of male and that’s it.

This simply demonstrates to me the inadequacies of such essentialist thinking, where there is an insistence that people have to be placed in one of two boxes ‘male’ and ‘female’ (or ‘black’ or ‘white’). What happens if someone doesn’t qualify under either heading? It brings the classification system itself into question.

This thinking is a key part of what underlies the teaching in Leviticus 18 & 20 that it is an “abomination” for a man to lie with a man. The understanding is that there is a right way for sexual relations to be ordered, and it involves the two parties being members of particular and opposite categories (with male superior to female of course); the boundaries must not be transgressed. Human beings have to fit into the different categories (‘male and female he created them’) and, again, if there are people who don’t fit, it brings the classification system itself into question.

What I want to ask is: where are Christians called to stand today? Are we with Leviticus in saying that there is something essential that needs to be safeguarded and preserved – the boundaries are absolute? Or are we prepared to be flexible, allowing our categories to be bent?

For me the answer is pretty clear. We are called to recognise and relate to all people as individuals, not as members of one class or another. I see this as a development rooted in Christian understandings, and a natural development of them – not so much in Scripture as the unfolding of a tradition from that Scripture, specifically the teaching that in Christ there is no male or female – in other words, in Christ all the old essentials have been dissolved. Our identity now rests in our relationship with Him and all the other categories can get lost.

From a Christian point of view, we are all fallen – in other words, we are all queer, bent and broken. The important and interesting thing is what we are enabled to become over time as the grace of God is set free to work within us: not what we were, but what we yet might be.

Comments

It would appear that I am still having problems with the comment system on this blog – they should be being sent through to me immediately (so that I can reply to them promptly) but this is not happening, and I don’t yet know why. Apologies – especially to Tess and dover1952. I shall investigate and try and solve the issue.

The principal deceit of the pro-EU campaign

So in the Queen’s speech we have been assured that there will be a referendum on our membership of the European Union by 2017 at the latest. I am delighted that this is going to happen, although I already have grave misgivings about the way in which the debate is going to be framed. The principal deceit as I see it will be to confuse two things which are logically and politically separate – membership in the European Union, and participation in the common market.

We have a history of fair dealing in this country, and my sense of what happened in the previous referendum back in 1975 (the template for which seems to be the one that Cameron is following) is that the British people voted to join a free trade area, a customs union. We had a sense that we would be able to compete within it and earn our way forward. What I suspect was not made clear to the British people, and what I am worried will once again become obscured in the national debate, is that there is a significant difference between a free trade area and the political union that the EU embodies.

There is no excuse for this distinction not to be placed at the forefront of the campaign. The language of the European Union treaties are very clear, not least in the reference to an ‘ever closer union’ in the original Treaty of Rome which set up the European Economic Community, language which has been built upon in all the subsequent treaties. The symbolism of this is straightforward – simply look at a current passport, which demonstrates that British citizens are first and foremost citizens of Europe. That includes our Queen.

It is not essential to be a member of a political union (the EU) in order to benefit from the free trade area. There is another organisation, called EFTA, the European Free Trade Area, which has access to the European Economic Area but which does not require the member nations to concede sovereignty to a supra-national organisation. In addition, the most important elements of global trade are established at a higher level than the EU, through the auspices of the World Trade Organisation. Given that we purchase more from Europe than Europe does from us it is clearly in everyone’s interests that the economic side of our present arrangements is disrupted as little as possible, and that could be done through transferring our membership of the EU to EFTA instead.

No, the real issue at stake in the coming referendum is about national sovereignty. Put simply, do we wish to take charge of our own affairs and work our way in the world as a mature and independent nation? I sometimes feel that our national confidence, at least at the level of the institutional establishment, was at an extremely low ebb in the post-war period, climaxing in the mid-70s, and that this was a factor in the campaign to dissolve our sovereignty. We had infamously ‘lost an Empire and not found a role’. It was as if we could no longer govern ourselves, and looked for a higher authority to take over.

The trouble with that higher authority is that, in the subsequent decades, it has taken on more and more responsibility in more and more areas of our national life, changing everything from how we measure and weigh things to how we fish and how we are able to generate electricity. The true locus of power governing this nation is now off-shore, in Brussels (or, more precisely, in wherever the rolling caravan of ministerial meetings chooses to get together). I do not believe that the British people chose to give up that sovereignty back in 1975 and it is essential that a clear understanding of what is at stake is communicated over the next eighteen months or so, until the referendum itself takes place.

The campaign has already begun, of course, with a salvo of pro-EU businessmen talking about the economic costs of disengaging from the EU. Their actions are what has prompted this article, as I do not wish to see their narrative become the dominant one. If the argument is once again reduced to economics it would represent a deceit about the true nature of the decision that we face. If the argument is centred upon national sovereignty then we will at least be able to say that whatever answer is given is a definitive one. After all, if the British people choose consciously to surrender their sovereignty then that will be that. We will, in practice, become the north-west provice of the European Union, no longer able to make our own choices in the world, which I would see as an immense tragedy and shame – but if that is what people choose, then so be it.

I have two grounds for hope that the national debate will indeed centre on questions of sovereignty, and not on questions of economics. The first is that I believe it to be unlikely that Cameron will be able to get anything substantial from his ‘negotiations’ with other European leaders. It is clear that they are trying to establish a stronger political centre for the EU in order to cope with the stresses and strains caused by the misconceived adoption of the single European Currency. As was predicted at the time, a single currency across different nations could only work if there was also a single political authority with the capacity to require fiscal transfers from one area to another. A currency union without such a political union to reinforce it was simply a recipe for disaster – a disaster that we are now seeing the shape of.

Which leads me to my second ground for hope. I do not believe that the situation in Greece is going to end very well, and it will demonstrate the political nature of the European Union in spectacular fashion. It is unconscionable for the Greek people to be immiserated as a result of decisions made by the political and financial elites in which they had no part. The crisis there – which will likely come to a head in the next few weeks when the Greek government declares bankruptcy – will show the political nature of the EU to anyone watching. It will be the moment when the mask slips and the underlying truth of the EU will emerge.

We need to have a proper debate about the nature of the EU before the referendum, and that proper debate has to centre upon the political nature of the EU, not simply whether we will be better or worse off in a financial sense. We are worth more than that.

The real political earthquake is still to come

Like most of us I was surprised by the outcome of the last general election. I was expecting the Conservatives to have more seats than other parties but not an overall majority; instead, I rather assumed that we were in for a Labour-SNP coalition government for the next five years. The result has been described as a political earthquake but, whilst it was a stunning development, I believe that the real earthquake is still to come.

Notice, first of all, that once the euphoria of victory has subsided, the Conservatives have an extremely small majority, smaller than John Major’s from 1992-1997. That government was significantly hampered in its objectives by having to cope with backbench rebellions, not least over Europe. Anyone remember Major’s expletive-filled denunciations of them? It is very unusual for incumbent governments to win by-elections, so we can expect that majority to shrink over time.

Furthermore, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party has not diminished in strength over the last twenty years or so, rather the opposite. This gives those backbenchers, who are clearly a well organised group, a very significant amount of leverage. Whereas Cameron was able to manipulate the process with respect to the referendum on electoral reform, thus killing off the prospect of proportional representation for another generation, I doubt whether he will be able to do the same with the forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. That might be my own hope speaking – I am strongly in favour of our leaving the EU – but there do seem more grounds for such hope at the moment. I can’t see any political compromise that would be acceptable to both those Eurosceptics and the other member governments of the EU. Consequently, Cameron will either have to try and sell a manifestly ‘weak’ package to the British people, or else he will campaign for an ‘out’ vote.

This will be complicated, alongside many other things, by the situation in Scotland. That was where a true political revolution took place, and it will clearly be some time before all the implications of the SNP’s success work themselves through our system. However, just as with the referendum on electoral reform that has settled a question for a generation, so too has the referendum on Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon was very clear that the general election vote was just that, and that it was not a vote for another referendum. That, of course, may change over time, but there seems little appetite for another referendum unless there is a very clear sense that there will be a decisive victory for the independence cause. That would require a major shift in the political landscape.

Which may well come if the EU referendum votes for an exit. The headlines over the coming months and years are unlikely to be favourable to the EU cause. The situation in Greece will come to a head, where Greece is likely to be forced to leave the Euro with the consequence of extreme financial hardship. This will, quite correctly, be blamed on the central EU institutions, which sought to set up a single currency without the necessary political centralisation that would have enabled it to work. Those institutions will therefore work towards putting that increased centralisation into effect – and how that then ties into the British referendum will be fairly clear.

So what happens if Britain as a whole votes to leave the ‘ever closer union’ of the EU, whilst Scotland votes to stay? That would be the ‘major shift in the political landscape’ that would justify another independence referendum in Scotland. Would it, could it take place before the actual withdrawal happened, and if so, would Scotland be allowed to stay in the EU whilst the rest of the United Kingdom departed? Legal advice would suggest not, that instead an independent Scotland would be required to apply for membership – and it would only be able to do that once it had set up all the apparatus of independence for itself, including its own currency.

We are, as a nation and as a society, arriving at a major crossroads in our national story, and it is not yet apparent in which direction we shall soon be travelling. Will we vote to stay within the EU and finally abandon any sense of independence as a nation? Or will we vote to leave the EU, which might, paradoxically, sound the final death knell for the country of Great Britain? Or will ‘events, dear boy, events’ once more render these questions irrelevant?

Questions, questions, questions – of such things is a speculative opinion column made. Yet my mind keeps returning at the moment to the ‘serenity prayer’, which runs like this: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. There are very few ways in which we can make a direct difference to these major historical events. There are things that we have direct control over, things that we can influence – both of which are comparatively small – and then there is the vast world over which nothing that we do has a direct impact.

In the end the real political earthquake is internal; as Jesus once put it, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. The arena where we can most effect significant change is in our own soul. If we can overcome all the darkness and evil that lies within each of us, then we will be in a much better position to eliminate all the darkness and evil that lies without. The fundamental political task is an inherently religious one – which is why the greatest religious teacher that ever lived was executed by the state. We live in interesting times.

The important thing is to vote

I write this the morning after a very lively and well attended General Election Hustings at West Mersea Parish Church. It was good to be involved and to become better acquainted with what the options are for us here on Mersea. If it happens again I will be much stricter about time-keeping, so that we could have more questions – there were several excellent questions that we didn’t have time to take. The character of the candidates became very clear, however, and this helps people to make their decision on who to vote for. That, after all, is the very purpose of hustings. I am convinced that we need a much greater involvement with politics at all levels of our society. It matters not only how we vote, but much more crucially, it matters that we vote.

Somewhere in one of my boxes at home I have a picture of me at secondary school in 1987 campaigning in a mock school election (confession – I was sporting a blue rosette with “I ♥ Maggie” on it). I have always been fascinated by politics and for a long time I had thought about a political career. After university I joined the Civil Service in Whitehall in order to become more fully acquainted with the political process. The role that I had involved changing jobs each year in order to be exposed to the different parts of the Department – I was in the Department of the Environment – and one of my jobs was ‘Radioactive Substances’. That is, I worked closely on the monitoring of nuclear power stations, and learned a very great deal about the science involved. One particular job I had – in 1993 if memory serves – was running a public consultation about the THORP processing plant in Sellafield, which was, at the time, extremely controversial. We knew that any decision reached by the government would immediately be taken through the judicial review process by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, so we had to be note perfect in describing the how and why behind the eventual decision. When it came before Parliament I wrote the briefing for John Major, and I have a very fond memory of his hand-written comments thanking me for a ‘perfect’ preparation (please forgive the boast!). What I came away from the Civil Service with was a full appreciation of how politics is just like making sausages, you don’t really want to get too exposed to the detail of how it is done!

It is possible – perhaps it is inevitable – that a cynicism about politics develops. The nature of the political process is such that it is extremely rare for a clear principle to be argued for and then carried out by someone who has not had to make all sorts of compromises along the way. In order to achieve anything in politics it is important to be alert to what is possible at any particular moment in time. In political theory this is called the ‘Overton window’ which describes the range of policies that the public are willing to accept. An average politician will work within that range and seek to advance his cause in incremental fashion, making deals and agreements along the way. A great politician will seek to change the nature of the window itself; that is, they would seek to ‘change the political weather’ in order that what had previously seemed impossible to implement later becomes accepted wisdom. In my lifetime the only politician who might be classed in that category is Margaret Thatcher, who clearly changed the terms of the political debate in this country. Even Thatcher, however, was very willing to compromise and make deals along the way, making tactical retreats on issues when it served her larger purpose.

So the great majority of politicians are average, and they are obliged by the very structure of our politics to make compromises, to accept that their ideals will have to be watered down if they are to make any progress at all. This is a recipe for cynicism. If you approach politics with a sense of idealism, a feel for how things might conceivably be, then it can seem a very brutal environment. More than this, when people on the ground suffer at the hands of a bureaucratic state, when decisions seem to be made without any respect for the human context – something which happens more and more these days – then it is easy to become disillusioned about the whole process and say ‘to hell with the lot of them’, and then disengage completely.

All that happens at that point is that the Overton window becomes much smaller, and the possibility of significant change recedes even further away. The saying goes, “all that is required for bad men to triumph is that good men do nothing” and that applies even to each of us, as we exercise our right to vote. If those of us who are dreamers and idealists, who are unhappy with the existing state of affairs, who are shocked or disgusted by the shabby compromises of the political class – if we disengage and do not vote then the process will only become worse. On the other hand, if all the dreamers and idealists do turn out and vote, then the political class will see that what is possible in this country is greater than they had realised, and the possibility of genuine progress comes that much closer.

To put that in religious terms, cynicism is a sin. To give in to a cynicism about the political process, to argue along the lines that Russell Brand does and think that voting makes no difference in the end, is to give greater power to the established and vested interests. It simply makes things worse. The answer is to follow the advice ‘be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. In other words, do not be under any illusion about the political process, recognise the nature of the beast – but hold on to idealism, hold on to hope, hold on to the sense that things may change – and let that guide your choice as you vote. Whoever it is that we choose to cast our ballot for, it is important that we each exercise that hard-won right. We’d certainly miss it if it was taken away from us.

General Election Hustings in West Mersea

Tomorrow night at 7.30pm at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, West Mersea.

Parliamentary candidates from five political parties are coming to answer questions from the public.

They will be asked about many of the issues that YOU are concerned about, including Bradwell power station.

Please do come along. It’s not too late to submit a question to me by email – the blog name at gmail dot com.

A category mistake that atheists make

Imagine that you have nine grey mice lined up in a row, and at the end of the row there is an elephant. The elephant is coloured in exactly the same shade of grey as the mice. Now if the question is then, ‘how many grey creatures are there?’ then the answer is ten. However, if the question is ‘how many mice are there?’ then the answer is nine. If someone answers the latter question with the answer ‘ten’ then they are including the elephant in the category ‘mice’ – and that is a mistake. It is a type of mistake that philosophers call a ‘category mistake’ for it rests upon placing an item into the wrong category.

I want to explain a category mistake that atheists often make when they are making polemical arguments against religious believers (mostly, but not always, Christian believers). The particular argument that I’m thinking of is the ‘one more god’ point, which can be summarised in the following way: all human beings doubt the existence of almost all the gods that have ever been believed in; atheists simply doubt the existence of one more god than the religious believers.

Normally resting behind this sort of argument is the assumption that the movement from believing in various gods to not believing in them represents a sort of progress. It is part of a more general story that claims that western culture is moving steadily away from the superstitious darkness of religious faith into the wonderfully enlightened realm of secular thought. This story took root in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was conventional wisdom by the middle of the twentieth. It has, however, largely become discredited and it is now extremely rare to find someone with academic expertise in this area who still has faith in that story. Obviously it takes time for the wider culture, especially the media, to catch up with academic developments, but it is happening.

This story of progress, however, does have roots in our own religious tradition. The very language of an ‘Old Testament’ and a ‘New Testament’ indicates as much. Even within the Old Testament, however, it is possible to trace the development of the Hebrew understanding of God (that is, Yahweh), and explaining this will help to understand the category mistake that I argue that atheists commonly make. In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem:

“On the tenth day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, who served the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down.” (Jeremiah 52:12-13)

The King of Judah was brought to the steps of the Temple, whereupon his family were slaughtered in front of him and then he was blinded and bound, taken into captivity to Babylon itself. There he joined all of the upper classes in Judah’s society, who had been taken into Exile by the Babylonians: ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137).

Imagine that you are part of this society which sees Yahweh as present in the temple and knows, therefore, that Jerusalem is inviolate and invincible – and then utter disaster comes upon you. This is where a great shift in Hebrew thinking about Yahweh happens. Up to this point the Ancient Hebrew people had thought of Yahweh as a tribal deity: “our god is bigger than your god”, where Yahweh is simply one god amongst other gods, maybe the most powerful in the pantheon but certainly one amongst others. When you are faced with this sort of calamity, however, you have two choices: you can either say, “Our god isn’t as strong as the other gods, therefore he is dead” and the worship of Yahweh dies off (which happened many times in ancient history); or – and here the genius of the Hebrew people is demonstrated – the people respond by escalating the attributes of Yahweh and say, “Yahweh is faithful; if this has happened to us, Yahweh must also be in charge of the Babylonian armies, therefore Yahweh is the only god, Yahweh is the creator of everything”.

In other words, what happens at the time of the exile in Babylon is that there is a shift from Yahweh as a tribal god of the Israelites, to Yahweh as the creator of all things. In other words a shift from thinking about Yahweh as a god (lower case g) to thinking about Yahweh as God (upper case G). This is the real genius of the Hebrews: to be faithful no matter what. They are “a stiff-necked people”, but this steadfastness is why they are the chosen people. God touched them and gave them a way of growing into a greater understanding of the truth.

In other words, to return to my original image, at the time of the exile the Ancient Hebrews stopped thinking of God as being one mouse alongside other mice, but realised that God was in fact an elephant – that he was radically unlike what they had previously believed. From this point onwards, in the Judaic, Christian and Islamic tradition, it is a mistake to think of the standard religious language about God as describing the equivalent of one god amongst other gods – to think of the elephant as a mouse. They are simply not the same sort of thing. To assume otherwise is a category mistake.

Of course, this does not end all the arguments. I would emphasise also that this is not an argument to establish that there actually is an elephant in the room. It remains possible to say that the religious believers are mistaken and that what they believe to be an elephant is in fact simply another mouse, and that the religious believers are deluded in thinking otherwise. Yet to pursue that line of argument necessitates engaging with what is actually claimed about God by the religious traditions, most especially what are seen as the attributes of God such as omniscience and omnipotence and so on. This is something that the most prominent atheists signally fail to do. After all, the finest human minds for thousands of years have pondered the details of this question. It would be something of a surprise if someone like Richard Dawkins, who has never received an education in this subject, was able to overthrow the tradition with his ‘one more god’ jibe.

Those like Dawkins will undoubtedly continue to insist that mice and elephants are the same, but there comes a point when all the powers of logic and reasoning fail and it is simply a matter of saying ‘look and see’ – but then, some blindness is wilful. Wittgenstein once wrote “… it is not that before you can understand it you need to be specially trained in abstruse matters, but the contrast between understanding the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things which are most obvious may become the hardest of all to understand. What has to be overcome is a difficulty having to do with the will, rather than with the intellect.”