A few thoughts about Mr Mourinho

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1. He was completely in the wrong about Dr Carneiro. The fact that he blew up so badly at such an early stage was something of an warning sign.

2. I want him to stay. Arrogant it might be, but he is the best manager that Chelsea have ever had (possibly excluding Carlo) and he has earnt the right to work through this.

3. There are parallels with other third seasons – but the difference is that I think he genuinely wants to stay. Give him the chance Roman! Don’t go back to the previous serial changes! Let him build the club and dynasty! He’s only just won the league for you after all…

4. In football terms the problem actually seems straightforward – Matic was off the pace at the beginning of the season, and his preference for sticking Fabregas in that central two is not working. Without the defensive shield the back four are over-exposed, most especially Ivanovic, who really needs to be dropped. That, and Hazard isn’t carrying the team in the way he did last year. For now I’d recommend: Begovic; Rahman, Cahill, Terry, Azpi; Loftus-Cheek, Mikel (with Matic to take that spot back in due course); Hazard, Oscar, Willian; Costa (or Remy!).

5. I hope his visit to his dad helps to calm him down. I wish Roman would ring him up and just say ‘chum, you’ve earnt the right to one bad season, you’ve got time to sort it out’. If not, it looks like he’s about to have a melt down.

Ah well, it’s never boring being a Chelsea fan. We are the champions!

Is it worth arguing with Dawkins?

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What makes for a useful argument? There are several things that need to be in place before a discussion can be mutually fruitful, rather than such discussion descending, as politicians’ arguments so often do, into a simple exchange of soundbites and slogans. The classical form for understanding a particular subject divides the material into three categories – grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Grammar is where to begin, the ground stuff: the basic vocabulary, that which is needed in order simply to know what you are talking about. This is the stuff that needs to be learnt by heart before being able to progress any further, so it includes things like the alphabet, number sequence, basic dates of history and so on. Without this foundation it is literally impossible to progress any further in an understanding of the subject area.

After grammar comes logic. This is where the basic raw material has been learned, and now it is possible to apply reason to that raw material. This is where the rules of interpretation are established and put to use, where words can be formed into proper sentences, where numbers can be put through equations, where a story can be told around a particular historical sequence of events and so on.

Rhetoric comes last. Rhetoric is where things can become creative, for this is where those who have mastered the grammar and logic of a subject are able to begin building new arguments and ideas; that is, this is where it is possible to develop new rules for the logic. This is where creative and interesting work can be done – and sometimes this creative and interesting work is so profound that it completely recasts the grammar and logic of the subject in question.

The great problem with arguments about theology and philosophy of religion in our society is that those who make the most noise are people who think that they are operating at the level of rhetoric when in fact they have not yet even engaged with the basic grammar. Richard Dawkins, for example, hasn’t even achieved the level of being wrong. He is like a baby first learning to speak words, whereby it is mostly gibberish that comes out, and when there is a coherent word you cannot be certain that it matches up with a coherent thought.

Theology and the philosophy of religion have been studied by the finest minds in human history for three thousand years and more. There is a rich and fertile intellectual field that interacts with every other intellectual field, most especially the philosophy of science and the philosophy of language – it is not possible to have a rigorous understanding of physics without an equally robust understanding of metaphysics for example (as Aristotle knew). In order to make a coherent contribution to understanding in this area it really does make a difference if you have become acquainted with the way the topics have been debated through history, not least because by doing so you discover many of the most common mistakes that have been made in the past, and you are therefore set free to not repeat them.

This intellectual history has many twists and turns, new pathways and dead ends. One particular dead-end is associated with the rise of twentieth-century atheism. The roots of that form of atheism are clear. It flows from arguments put forward by David Hume in the eighteenth century, moves through the development of analytic philosophy with people like Bertrand Russell, took a canonical form as ‘logical positivism’ with the publication of AJ Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ in 1936, and was taken as received opinion in undergraduate circles in the 1960s. The arguments that Dawkins and his ilk like to make are cut directly from the arguments made by people like Russell and Ayer nearly eighty years ago. He isn’t saying anything new. Of course, the tradition doesn’t stand still, and what was intellectually fashionable in the 1960s had begun to be dismantled by the 1990′s and is now regarded as rather quaint. Ayer himself has disowned the book that was so influential, stating that it was full of mistakes that he spent the next fifty years trying to correct.

So when someone who has been formed in an intellectual tradition like philosophy engages in debate with works like those by Dawkins, Hithens and their brethren, it can be immensely frustrating. There is no basic agreement on the terms of the argument, no consensus as to the grammar and logic, let alone the rhetoric. Dawkins himself is very clear about his distaste for theology as he consigns it all to an intellectual scrapheap (using what is basically a ‘logical positivism’ type of argument to do so). At that point, what can the educated person do? She can simply say ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’ and leave it at that.

Unless…. unless she sees that there is a genuinely enquiring mind behind the arguments and disputes. Where there is a good will and an open mind then it is possible for a shared understanding to be formed. Please note that this shared understanding does not at all mean that the beginning student using Dawkins’ arguments will end up being converted to Christianity. Not at all. It is perfectly possible to understand the tradition completely, to know the grammar, be an expert in the logic, and to be creative rhetorically within the mainstream Western philosophical tradition, and still be a completely convinced atheist. It’s just that such an atheist would not be intellectually lazy, parroting opinions at fifth or sixth hand, and most of all, such an atheist would have a proper understanding of what it was that he was rejecting. That is what is most missing from Dawkins.

My philosophical hero, Wittgenstein, was a part of the intellectual movement that I summarised above – he was Russell’s favourite pupil – yet, even though his own faith was murky at best, he had a very clear understanding of the nature of religious belief and the way in which the philosophical tradition both could and could not interact with it. When he was invited to address the Vienna Circle of philosophers (those whose work Ayer went on to summarise) he realised that they hadn’t grasped some of the basic grammar of what he was trying to do. He therefore turned his chair around and began to recite poetry, in an attempt to shock them into opening their minds. He didn’t succeed. As he later wrote, “What makes a subject difficult to understand — if it is significant, important — is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not difficulty of the intellect but of the will.” That’s the problem that I see with people like Dawkins – they simply don’t want to understand.

The uses and abuses of scientific authority

I believe that science is in need of a Reformation. By that I mean that science as presently practiced has travelled a very long way from its origins as a holy endeavour, characterised by humility in the face of the truth. The way that science is presently practiced involves a very great deal of intellectual dishonesty and manipulation, and these egregious faults pass generally unnoticed simply because of the immense social capital that “science” has generated as a result of technological success.

Scientists as such have a certain authority in our culture as they are seen as those who possess a form of knowledge which is beyond normal understanding, and the results of that knowledge are often awesome and inspiring – the moon landings being one particularly visible success. Yet there are clear limits to what science can tell us, and the distance between what an authentic scientist might say (authentic meaning one who has humility before the truth) and what a contemporary scientist might say (contemporary meaning one who simply makes bold claims without being able to back them up) is very stark.

Let us return once again to Richard Dawkins, the erstwhile Professor for the public understanding of science. When Dawkins writes about science, especially about evolutionary biology, he is excellent – a compelling writer, lucid, vivid, and able to explain complex phenomena in a way that the intelligent lay reader can understand. Dawkins has authority in this subject area because it is an area in which he has been trained thoroughly and in which he has decades of experience as a teacher. If you want to understand evolutionary biology then I can unhesitatingly recommend his writings.

However, what Dawkins is presently best known for is his writings on religion. This is not his area of academic expertise. He has not received any training in this area at all, and he has no academic experience. What Dawkins has done is use the authority that he has accrued as a writer in the sphere of evolutionary biology to try and strengthen his case in a different area. This is intellectually illegitimate; it is a form of fraud. As most people have little expertise in this area, and as most people give authority to ‘scientists’, Dawkins is given a hearing. Yet for those who actually have expertise in this area Dawkins’ arguments barely reach the level of being wrong. As the Marxist atheist Terry Eagleton memorably put it, “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” I say this with authority because this is an area in which I have been fully trained and in which I have years of experience teaching – so yes, in this arena my qualifications are indeed much greater than those of Dawkins!

Dawkins is simply the most obvious example of a scientist who is cashing in on the general respect given to science by our culture in order to advance a different agenda. The subject of my last article, the medical-pharmaceutical-industrial complex is another. Modern medicine is indeed a marvellous thing. The ways in which we understand the mechanisms of the body and can often repair it when they go wrong, from broken bones to treating heart disease, this is wonderful and worthy of as many prayers of thanksgiving that we can muster. Yet the pharmaceutical industry has taken advantage of the trust that we give to doctors, a trust which is very much a subset of the trust that we give to scientists in general, and has manipulated that relationship in order to make money. Scientific research – that on which our whole system of modern medicine relies – has been systematically abused and distorted in order to serve the financial interests of huge industrial conglomerates, and any idea of intellectual humility before the truth was abandoned long ago.

A further example comes when we look at the issue of ‘climate change’, what used to be called – and what used to be more honestly called – ‘global warming’. The allegation was that as a result of modern industrial development we were pumping dangerous levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as a result of which the global temperature was going to continuously increase. The IPCC produced regular bulletins giving predictions about what was going to happen (they still do this, even though there hasn’t been any increase in global temperatures for around 17 years now, and counting). Yet we often hear reference to the figure of 97%, as in ’97% of scientists believe in global warming’. Once again, we have an argument which is only given a hearing because of the general authority that is given to scientists. As soon as that figure is subjected to any sort of rigorous scrutiny – Where did it come from? How was it arrived at? – then the figure falls apart, as it is based on incredibly shoddy and manipulated research (those who are interested in the detail I would refer to the blog Climate Etc written by Professor Judith Curry, one of the world’s leading climatologists). Whenever you hear someone mention this figure, our Prime Minister perhaps, be certain that it indicates a profound ignorance about the subject being discussed.

The religious reformation began with an awareness that the institutions of the church had lost touch with their own highest purposes, and had succumbed, as human institutions so often do succumb, to the very human frailties of greed, vanity and pride. I believe that, taken as a social institution, science has succumbed to the very same vices. Just as the church was reformed by a protest movement, so too must science be reformed. Just as the church was renewed by a return to first principles – the slogan used was ‘ad fontes’ – so too must science return to its own best practice, restricting itself to saying only what can be known, and not prostituting its authority in search of worldly success, whether that be celebrity or cold, hard cash. Put simply, science will only be able to properly be itself when it recognises that it cannot function without those human virtues that I have mentioned, of humility, integrity, honesty, self-discipline and the like – and most of all, when it recognises that those foundations on which it depends can only be established on spiritual terms. In other words, science will only be able to function properly as science when it both remembers and honours the original queen of the sciences: theology.

Queen of the Sciences

Do you have faith in your pills?

bad_pharmaIn recent years many of the insititutional pillars of society have fallen into disrespect. Politicians, obviously, but also journalism, the priesthood, the police, many others. Groups that were trusted who have now fallen from grace. Are doctors going to be next?

This is a question raised by Ben Goldacre in his extremely stimulating book ‘Bad Pharma’, which I read on holiday. Goldacre is a qualified medical doctor and psychiatrist, and presently a lecturer at Oxford. In his book, published in 2012, Goldacre sets out to show, in his words, that “Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects.”

Goldacre supports these contentions throughout his book building up a detailed critique of the pharmaceutical industry and the way in which it systematically distorts the medical process at every stage. The motivations for the pharmaceutical industry to do this are quite straightforward, given that it is a multi-billion pound industry and a successful new drug can mean the difference between a company flourishing and failing. However, in pursuit of that economic end, Goldacre documents the ways in which the industry undermines the scientific process in order to make more profit. The material that Goldacre presents is utterly shocking, and if I had any residual faith in the science lying behind much modern medical and psychiatric treatment, it has certainly vanished now.

Goldacre describes one example from when he was working in General Practice, which relates to the drug Reboxetine (Edronax), which is used as an anti-depressant. He had a patient who was not improving on other drugs, and was considering using Reboxetine to see if it had a beneficial effect. He looked at the available literature which seemed positive, and agreed with his patient that it was worth trying, and duly wrote out a prescription. However, shortly after this, a review of all the research on Reboxetine was published, which for the first time included data from medical trials that had not been published (one of the main ways in which the pharmaceutical industry manipulates things is by only publishing information about trials that show their drug in a favourable light, whilst suppressing information that is critical). Goldacre writes, “I did everything a doctor is supposed to do. I read all the papers, I critically appraised them, I understood them, I discussed them with the patient and we made a decision together, based on the evidence. In the published data, reboxetine was a safe and effective drug. In reality, it was no better than a sugar pill and, worse, it does more harm than good. As a doctor, I did something that, on the balance of all the evidence, harmed my patient, simply because unflattering data was left unpublished.”

The problems that Goldacre are describing are recognised as serious problems by some influential voices. The British Medical Journal, for example, recently published an editorial written by Goldacre entitled “How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it” so there are some grounds for hope. However, very little of substance is changing, and the pharmaceutical industry continues to operate with a great deal of freedom in how it manipulates the scientific process.

What really needs to happen is that the light of public attention needs to shine on this area in a sustained and intensive way. We need to become as worked up about what is happening in pharmaceuticals as we are about all the other scandals of our time. All institutions run the risk of becoming cocooned in their own ways of thinking and patterns of life, and sometimes it takes an outsider to come along and say ‘this is simply not right’. MPs doubtless thought that claiming expenses for the draining of their moats was simply how things were done; journalists doubtless cynically accepted that phone-tapping was the way in which the truth was discovered; church hierarchies were doubtless concerned that priests accused of child abuse had to be given a chance for redemption. In the same way I believe, following Goldacre, that the medical profession needs to be told that the present practice of relying on the pharmaceutical industry as the principal guide for the benefits or otherwise that come from any particular medicine is not acceptable.

I suspect that this will be a very difficult process because there is something different about the medical profession at the moment that doesn’t apply to the other examples. In our current society, as I have said many times, “science” operates in the role that theology used to, in that it is the overarching and dominant form of knowledge, which incorporates all others. Those who are learned in this form of knowledge are the priests of our contemporary age and, in particular, those who provide forms of healing on the basis of that form of knowledge function in the modern world in a very similar fashion to ancient shamans. Sometimes the healing can be entirely ritualistic, as is most apparent when considering the difference in effectiveness between anti-depressants and placebos (sugar pills) – both have the same healing effect, which rather suggests that such healing as takes place is a product of the ritual visit to the tribal medicine man. In other words, what we are dealing with here is not a simple, practical, technical problem that can be solved by the application of sufficient determination and good will. No, here we are seeking to topple the gods of our society, and Goldacre is a blasphemer and heretic.

There are, obviously, many ways in which the pharmaceutical industry has helped the common good, and Goldacre gives credit where it is due. However, it is equally clear that the present system is broken. I would thoroughly recommend Goldacre’s book to anyone who is interested in this subject. I shall be following the ongoing conversations with great interest.

“Jesus is Santa Claus for adults”

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I want to take issue with the comment attributed to Christopher Hitchens by Nick Cohen in the last edition of the Courier, to the effect that ‘Jesus is Santa Claus for adults’.

What is being alleged is that the belief in Jesus held by Christians is similar to the belief in Santa Claus held by young children. That is, there is a fantasy figure who comes bestowing gifts in a hidden fashion, that the children believe because they are told the story by adults. As the children grow up, so the understanding about the nature of Santa Claus changes, and belief in the real existence of Santa Claus gives way to a shrewder understanding of parental manipulation (if you’re on the naughty list Santa won’t bring you any presents), a manipulation which those very same children then indulge in when they become parents themselves. It is something that adds to the wonder and excitement of Christmas for the children after all, so where is the harm in it?

To think of Jesus in these terms is to think of Jesus as a nice story told by the grown ups to the children in a similar fashion, a way of duping the understanding in the service of a more effective manipulation by those with a fuller knowledge of the truth. To stop thinking of Jesus in traditional Christian terms is therefore, on this analogy, akin to a child growing up and looking behind the curtain, or seeing Mummy kissing Santa Claus, or simply glimpsing presents wrapped up and hidden that later ‘inexplicably’ come down a non-existent chimney from Santa. Belief in Jesus is therefore a child-like fantasy, which no grown adult could countenance.

I want to emphasise this aspect of Hitchens’ point. Belief in Jesus is seen as a childish, a relic of a superstitious age that those with a more mature outlook on life have simply left behind. Notice that this means that, in our present society, those who do retain some belief in Jesus (still a majority of the population even now) are seen as child-like by those who have rejected such a belief, like Mr Hitchens.

What I would like to know is how this analogy bears up when an adult is converted to Christian faith. After all, this is not a rare occurrence, it is a daily event. Has any adult ever been converted to a belief in Santa Claus? In contrast, in this country and abroad, mature and responsible adults are converted to a belief in Jesus Christ each and every day – I would guess thousands every day, if not more.

I would like to describe one such example which I know quite well, which is my own. When I was a teenager at school I was a militant atheist, by which I mean I was a devotee of the writings of Richard Dawkins, most especially his excellent ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, and I used his arguments to regularly attack Christian friends. I’m pretty sure that I used the Santa Claus analogy myself. I was quite certain that I was right, that I had matured away from a childish belief in a sky-fairy, and that the march of reason was unstoppable.

What shifted my perspective was going up to university to study philosophy and theology and therefore become forced into a much more rigorous pattern of thinking. I remain grateful to one particular tutor who was immensely patient with me as I trotted out the standard Dawkins lines and in each case he pointed out the logical fallacies and absurdities associated with that position. I would add: this isn’t intellectually difficult, The God Delusion could happily be set as a first-year undergraduate set text in philosophy as it contains so many excellent examples of bad argumentation. Properly considered it would provide a very thorough grounding in how not to make a coherent case.

Put simply, when I was forced to think through an intellectual position more thoroughly than I had done so before, when I had to dig more deeply and not rely on supposedly witty soundbites like the Santa Claus reference, I discovered that what I had been rejecting all along was not Christianity as it had been understood for the best part of two thousand years. Rather it was a caricature of the faith that had become dominant in the Protestant countries of North-Western Europe as a direct result of the political and social effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions. Dawkins was simply echoing arguments first raised several hundred years previously, as Hitchens then echoed Dawkins.

How, then, is my belief that ‘Jesus is Lord’ similar to a child’s belief in Santa Claus? The real irony is that what I came to realise was that it was my understanding of science that was more like that of a child’s belief in Santa Claus. After all, it was science that had the supposedly wonderful story to tell. Here was a method that provided wonderful benefits, that was a royal road to truth, that was practiced by people who were wiser and more rational than the common person – in sum, it was science that was the dominant belief system in my mind. What a proper academic study of science did for me – and what I really wish someone like Richard Dawkins could make time for – is realising that science is a human endeavour just like any other, with benefits and costs, and which is very much prone to making mistakes.

To my mind, it is the prevalent belief in science, and the deference given to those who dispense science, which is most like the child’s belief in Santa Claus. It is a naïve understanding, and not one that can be sustained after a ‘look behind the curtain’ which marks the threshold from childishness to maturity. This is not an abstract point – lives are at stake. I will write next time of one area in our cultural life where this childish deference towards science has done immense harm to us, with a look at the pharmaceutical industry.

Why I want Jeremy Corbyn to lead Labour

corbynMy Union has written to me asking me to join the Labour party and vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I’m not sure that I will do that, because the Labour party is the only mainstream party for which I have never voted, and I would expect that Harman’s thought police will be actively rooting out new members with a questional political commitment (I’d definitely qualify!) – so why am I interested in who is going to become their leader? Well, in simple terms, Corbyn is someone who might tempt me to change that pattern of voting, and I’d like to explain why.

The first point is simply that Corbyn is so obviously not part of the metropolitan bubble, despite living in Islington. I am guessing that his views have hitherto placed him beyond the pale in terms of internal Labour party politics, and that this has enabled him to have a clearer perspective on the inwardness of the party elite. Whatever the reason, he comes across as authentic, consistent and principled, and that is immediately a huge plus, whatever the specific policy details.

Yet it is the policy details that attract me. I think that he will broaden out our political conversation in some very healthy ways. To begin with, it is very unclear that replacing a state monopoly with a private monopoly in various industries – rail, energy, post and so on – has actually benefited the country, as opposed to the financial industry. It is long past time that we assessed the lived experience of these private monopolies against the promises made, to see whether the politicians involved were wise and prudent or simply distracted by the prospect of generating a quick cash windfall for the Treasury. I also think that emphasising corporate tax avoidance and exploring ways to ensure that, for example, the profits made by the Daily Mail aren’t sent through Bermuda in order to avoid their legal obligations, is a necessary part of a healthy political conversation.

His key pitch, though, is about resisting political measures around austerity, and here I think he has a strong point both politically and morally. The sums involved in trimming back benefits, such as the child credit tax, are truly trivial when compared to either the overall government budget or the sums involved in supporting the financial industry with bail outs. For a society to try and save money by giving less to the weak and vulnerable, whilst turning a blind eye to the vast sums going to those who already have much – this says a very great deal about the sort of society that we are living in, and it doesn’t say anything good.

I believe that for a society to be considered civilised, there must be a certain standard of living below which nobody is allowed to fall. This is not a question of merit, or reward for hard work, or any other form of assessment or ‘means testing’. It is simply to ensure that nobody is thrown overboard as dead weight. This cannot be divorced from a Christian perspective of course – it is rooted in a theology of grace, that ‘all fall short of the glory of God’ and we are all the undeserving beneficiaries of a free hand out in spiritual terms.

Yet it can be defended in purely secular terms as well. To begin with, the notion that hard work is the principal determinant of financial success has been quite thoroughly deconstructed academically. The roles played by accidents of birth, networking, opportunity and simple luck are far larger. Put simply, hard work is not enough – and who is to say that those cleaning toilets work ‘less hard’ than those operating computers in the City? No, the idea that we might ever live in a pure meritocracy is simply a nonsense.

Secondly, the consequence of destroying demand at the lowest end of the income scale, which is what happens when the poor are made poorer, is that the total aggregate demand in an economy shrinks. The conspicous consumption of Louis Vuitton handbags and other luxury items by the super rich cannot compensate for the absence of consistent purchasing on necessities by the poor. To remove the poor from the economic cycle is to shrink the economic cycle itself, and then we are all diminished, both financially and spiritually.

It is because of this that I’m a supporter of a ‘basic income’, which to my mind is the simplest way to ensure that nobody is financially abandoned by the wider society. There are different ways to achieve that, and I’m not sure which method is best, but I believe that this is the sort of conversation that we need to have. The capitulation to the austerity narrative by the Labour party leadership, best exemplified by Harriet Harman’s decision to abstain on the recent package of welfare cuts passed by the government, shows that we need a very different opposition if we are to remain civilised.

I disagree with Corbyn on several things – the top rate of income tax is one of them, as I think it is self-defeating to increase it, it needs to be lowered significantly – but I really want him to lead the Labour party. To my mind the key political question is about how social inclusion is accomplished, not whether, and that leaves lots of room for political disagreements, not least between those who believe that such an aim can only be accomplished by an overmighty centralised state over against those who believe that it can be accomplished by small scale and local cooperative movements. Yet I would emphasise that this is the conversation that we must have. I think that if Corbyn were to be elected leader of the Labour party the quality of our political conversation would significantly improve, and we would all be better for it. So if you are eligible to vote – please vote for Mr Corbyn.

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.

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.