Category Archives: awfully deep

About a boycott

A few basic principles about boycotts.

1. Politically-motivated choice is legitimate

1.1. Jane is purchasing a good, which we’ll call G. What G is doesn’t matter – some oranges, a magazine subscription, a cultural event which her organisation will host. G1 and G2 – the offerings from suppliers S1 and S2 – are more or less equivalent in Jane’s estimation. She has to choose one or the other; she chooses G1 over G2 not because of anything to do with the good itself, but because political principle P predisposes her against supplier S2.

1.2. This choice, as described, is plainly legitimate. It’s a familiar kind of calculation: under apartheid, South African apples and wine were (probably) as good as similarly-priced alternatives; like many other people, I chose not to buy apartheid produce. Ultimately it is no different from a politically-motivated positive choice: the choice to shop at the Co-op rather than Tesco, say, or to take out a subscription to Red Pepper rather than the New Statesman.

1.3. Of course, we may not agree with the specific principle P which motivates Jane’s choice, and if so we may not approve of the choice. But we should not expect to approve of all Jane’s choices, unless we already know that we are in complete agreement with Jane. If Jane’s purchases are guided by her enthusiasm for veganism or her support for the Liberal Democrats, she is not going to make the same choices that I would make. Her choices are her concern.

1.4. One person’s choices may have effects on other people. If I disagree with Jane’s principles, then – to the extent that her choices affect me – I may well not be happy about them; if Jane is doing my shopping for me, I may even end up asking somebody else, with more sympathetic principles, to do it. But Jane’s choice – like my choice in this second scenario – remains legitimate: she is a free and rational individual who has the right to hold her own set of principles P and choose how to follow them, as are we all.

2. Boycotts are legitimate

2.1. A boycott is a special type of politically-motivated choice. Jane boycotts supplier S when she chooses to go without good G altogether rather than offend against principle P. It is intrinsic to a boycott that G is valuable. (If G were not of particular value – if it were a matter of choosing between broadly equivalent rival Gs – we would be looking at a choice rather than a boycott; and if G were of no value to Jane she would not have chosen to purchase it in the first place and the question would not arise.) A boycott is a sacrifice: Jane is giving up G, which she values, for the sake of P.

2.2. Somebody carrying out a boycott imposes a disproportionate cost on herself – disproportionate in the sense that P is taken as an absolute constraint, not to be weighed as one factor among others. This, too, is legitimate. When I was younger I had a particular fondness for Granny Smith apples – no other fruit hit the spot – but I would and did deprive myself of them rather than buy South African. Again, we can liken the disproportionate cost of a boycott to the disproportionate cost of a positive choice: the decision to take out a subscription to Red Pepper in the certain knowledge that one wouldn’t read it, for example. (Perhaps because one already had a subscription. It’s really quite good these days; the cultural coverage has improved a lot.)

2.2.1. The value of G is not an argument against boycotting S. A boycott is a sacrifice; the more valuable G is, the greater is the sacrifice undertaken in boycotting its supplier S. A boycott cannot be challenged by emphasising the value of G (but you really like Granny Smiths!). If anything, the value of G counts in favour of the boycott: if G is extraordinarily valuable, the boycott is an extraordinarily powerful demonstration of Jane’s commitment to P.

2.3. We saw, in the broader case of political choices, that one person’s choice can affect other people, and that someone who disagrees with P may not approve of choices motivated by P. Both of these points necessarily apply in the case of a boycott. Suppose that Jane is an extreme right-winger who supported the Pinochet regime and holds a grudge against all subsequent Chilean governments. Most people reading this will not approve of Jane choosing not to buy Chilean produce, all other factors being equal, on those grounds; a fortiori, we would certainly not approve of Jane applying an absolute boycott to Chilean goods on those grounds.

2.4. Nor would we be happy about Jane doing our shopping for us, if we were housebound or incapacitated. But Jane’s choices are still legitimate, despite the repugnance of their grounds – and hence of their consequences, or rather of the implications which can be drawn from their consequences.

2.4.1. The value of G to a third party is not an argument against boycotting S. The argument at 2.2.1. holds: the message of the boycott is now that Jane’s commitment to P is such that she is willing to bear the cost of disappointing other people by depriving them of G. An ethical greengrocer could choose to refuse to stock South African produce, even in the knowledge that its customers had a particular fondness for Granny Smiths and did not share her beliefs. The choice might not be good business, but it would be legitimate and should be respected as such.

3. Politics come first

3.1. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as harmful or costly: a boycott is a sacrifice. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as disproportionate: it is in the nature of boycotts to be disproportionate.

3.2. A boycott is a costly and disproportionate act carried out in commitment to a political principle. To the extent that we do not share that commitment, we will not approve of the boycott.

3.2.1. However, to the extent that we do not share that principle, we would not approve of any action motivated by it, just as we would not agree with any statement made to advance it.

3.2.2. The political discussion is separate from the question of the legitimacy of the tactics used.

3.3. The key question to be asked of a boycott is: assuming rational actors motivated by a genuine commitment to a political principle which can legitimately be held, can this disproportionate sacrifice be justified? (The question is not whether we believe that it is justified.)

3.3.1. This is a question expecting the answer Yes. A boycott is, in principle, a legitimate political tactic, irrespective of our position on the political cause involved. (It may on occasion not be the best tactic to use, but this is a question for the people using it.)

3.3.2. To say that a boycott is not a legitimate tactic is, generally, to say that the principle for which it is undertaken is not a legitimate political cause.

4. Inconsistency is irrelevant

4.1. If I have never stolen, I can steal for the first time. If I have never handled other people’s money without stealing, I can choose not to steal for the first time. Perhaps the acts I have never carried out are political: I have never taken out a magazine subscription on the basis of a positive political commitment, or crossed ‘apples’ off my shopping list on the basis of a negative commitment. This has no bearing on whether I choose to do either of these things in future.

4.2. The value of an action is not determined by whether the actor has ever done it before; the legitimacy of a choice is not determined by whether the actor has ever made that choice before.

4.3. To criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle one supports, would amount either to holding them to account for something they are no longer doing or criticising them for an improvement in their conduct.

4.3.1. We may believe that the boycott is an aberration and that in future their conduct will return to its original course; however, this in itself does not give any grounds for criticising their present behaviour, which by definition we approve of.

4.4. We may criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle we do not support; in this case, however, we would not be criticising their inconsistency but (simply) the fact that they were taking action in support of a principle we did not support.

4.5. The fact that a boycott is being imposed for the first time cannot make it illegitimate.

5. Selectivity is inevitable

5.1. In one light, selectivity at a given time and inconsistency over time are the same concern, and are equally irrelevant. Why did I steal from that particular newsagent when I’d never stolen before? Because that was where I happened to be. Why did I hand over this purse untouched when I’d always stolen from them before? Because that was the one I was handling when the pangs of conscience struck. There is no reason to ask these questions.

5.2. Someone boycotting a particular supplier S, on the basis of a particular (legitimate) principle P, can be accused of ‘singling out’ S. There may be many potential suppliers – S1, S2, S3… – whose deserve to be boycotted on the basis of P. Moreover, there are many legitimate political principles – P1, P2, P3… – on the basis of which boycotts could be implemented. Why this principle? Why this supplier?

5.2.1. To guide one’s conduct by every imaginable political principle (P1, P2, P3…) is an obvious absurdity.

5.2.2. To guide one’s conduct, to any significant extent, by every political principle to which one assents would in practice be impossibly burdensome, unless one’s political commitments were extremely limited.

5.3. The narrower goal of applying a single principle with complete consistency – boycotting every supplier who infringes it (or else boycotting none of them) – may seem realisable in theory, but reflection shows that complete consistency would require complete knowledge and the willingness to take any imaginable cost.

5.3.1. Complete consistency in the application of a single principle is an ideal rather than a standard: in Fuller’s terms, part of a morality of aspiration (a set of excellences one aims to realise) rather than a morality of duty (a set of minimum requirements one undertakes to meet).

5.3.2. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one supports is to criticise them for failing to realise an ideal, not failing to meet a standard.

5.4. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one does not support is, in general, to criticise them for acting on that principle at all (see 3.2.1.).

6. Equality is difficult

6.1. Although the effects of a boycott on third parties do not, in general, affect the legitimacy of the boycott (see 2.4.1.), a boycott whose effects tend systematically to disadvantage a particular population group – by depriving them of goods or services, or even by causing them offence and distress – may be illegitimate for that reason.

6.1.1. This is true of any action which has such effects; there is nothing about boycotts making them particularly liable to delegitimation on these grounds.

6.2. The principle of non-discrimination is unproblematic in the case of innate characteristics such as gender and ethnicity, and relatively unproblematic in the case of religion (which very often amounts to an innate characteristic, at least in the perceptions of the believer herself).

6.3. Extending it to political beliefs – even long-held and hard-to-change beliefs – is problematic, however.

6.3.1. To hold a political belief is to believe that certain changes should be made to the distribution of wealth, power and relatively advantage, and that certain arguments should be made and listened to more widely.

6.3.2. To pursue a political belief is to make arguments which may offend one’s opponents, and to attempt to realise changes which will disadvantage them.

6.4. There is an asymmetry built into prejudices against innate characteristics: the political actor who aims to disadvantage Jews, Muslims, women or children has many opponents who are not political actors.

6.4.1. By contrast, political prejudice is symmetrical: to be prejudiced against Liberal Democrats, for example, is to be prejudiced against political actors like oneself.

6.4.2. Within the political context, animosity towards other political actors is normal; within this context, the idea of political prejudice has very little meaning.

6.5. To delegitimate political discrimination is to cantonise politics as a specialised pursuit, only engaged in at set times and in certain places.

6.5.1. This is undesirable.

6.6. To delegitimate political discrimination in a given area is to delegitimate political action in that area.

6.6.1. In some areas (e.g. the employer/employee relationship) political action should in fact be illegitimate, making the delegitimation of political discrimination unproblematic.

6.6.2. In others, outlawing political discrimination (and hence political action) may be the only way to be sure of outlawing racial or religious discrimination.

6.7. In all cases, delegitimating political discrimination has a cost and should only be undertaken with that cost borne in mind.

When strangers were welcome here

There’s a particular move in populist politics which I think of as the Death Spiral. (I was going to call it the Death Spiral of Hate, but – while indubitably more precise – that wording is probably cranking it up a bit too high for the first paragraph of a post.) It’s a bit like conjuring a folk devil and a bit like a political bidding war; it’s more contained and predictable than the folk devil phenomenon, though, and it’s unlike a bidding war in not needing a partner (although others can certainly join in).

It goes like this. First, somebody in government (or in friendly media) stokes up hatred against a particular group. Then the government responds to public concern – well, you’ve got to respond to public concern, haven’t you? – and takes action against the group. Here’s the twist: the action that the government takes doesn’t lead the hatred to subside; the angry mob doesn’t put down the pitchforks and douse the torches, satisfied that somebody’s finally listened to them and done something. The government’s action leaves the well of popular hatred very much undrained; it may even top it up. Because then, after all, the public can once again express its very real concerns – and that will give the government something to respond to (you’ve got to respond to real public concerns). Once started, the process can go round and round indefinitely: the government and its supporters sing an endless call-and-response of resentment and self-righteous severity, opposition parties are wrong-footed or forced to tag along, and everybody’s happy – except the poor sods who are getting interned, denied benefits, etc.

For example: five years ago Louise Casey – then working for the Labour government as a consultant on ‘community’ issues – argued that community sentences should be made both tougher and more visible. People carrying out unpaid work as part of a non-custodial sentence should do it out in public where people can see; to make sure people do see, they should wear those orange boiler-suits out of Misfits, or hi-viz jackets, or both. So people doing ‘Community Payback’ would become a familiar sight; instead of thinking of community sentences as a soft option, people would see the reality of ‘community punishment’ and think… well, what? Would they think, those kids picking up litter are really suffering – that looks just as bad as prison to me! It seems more likely that they would see people in orange boiler suits who weren’t working particularly hard (they might be chatting among themselves, they might even be stopping for a fag) and think, I used to think community service was a soft option – now I’m sure!. Five years on, the perception of non-custodial sentences as a soft option certainly doesn’t seem to have gone away.

My son brought another example to my attention the other day. You know this proposal to deny benefits to immigrants until they’ve been here for three months? Won’t that make them more likely to take any job that’s going, even below the minimum wage, even working cash-in-hand? “Mmm, yeah,” I said. And won’t that… I caught up. “Won’t that create more competition with the very lowest-paid British workers, thereby creating even more resentment of immigrants and even more pressure to get tough on immigration, again? Yes, I think it will.”

Whatever else I could say about Louise Casey and David Cameron, I don’t think either of them is stupid; as PM, Cameron even has a kind of intellectual praetorian guard, responsible for making sure that his ideas are in working order (as well as for preserving him from contact with any ideas from the outside world). I think he knows what he’s doing (as did Casey); I think he’s identified an appetite that will grow with feeding, and he’s making sure it’s fed.

It’s sometimes argued that populism is directionless and reactive, subject to lurches in any number of directions; it’s sometimes even argued that populism can or should be used by the Left (“where’s the Nigel Farage of the Left?” and so forth). On this way of thinking, ‘Death Spiral’ effects emerge when populism just happens to lurch in the direction of giving an unpopular minority a kicking. They may be no more than an unfortunate side-effect of giving the people what they think they want, in other words. Ed Miliband’s intervention gives the lie to this argument and throws the Death Spiral into relief, by demonstrating that it’s not the only way to address people’s worries about immigration. While it doesn’t necessarily go as far as Mike would have liked (and certainly isn’t framed in his terms), Ed’s statement takes on those who attack economic immigration and effectively calls their bluff. After all, the problem of low-paid immigrants – to the extent that there is such a problem – is by definition a problem of employers choosing to (a) employ immigrants to the exclusion of native workers and, not unrelatedly (b) to pay immigrants less than native workers; constrain those choices (whether from above, as Ed prefers, or from below) and a material source of conflict between two groups of workers disappears. (Those two groups may still hate each other on the basis of free-floating prejudice, but those feelings tend to fade over time – at least, they do if they aren’t reinforced.) Marxists know that the important antagonisms start with material interests, and that that’s where the changes need to be made. And so does Ed.

Another group which is supposed to take a grown-up view of immigration are the economic liberals, and particularly the intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic of right-libertarianism. Bryan Caplan certainly sets the right tone at the outset of his 2012 Cato Journal paper (PDF), arguing that there are no relevant differences between a Haitian being denied entry to the US and a US citizen going to Haiti on a relief mission and then being denied re-entry. (Oh, very well, a US citizen and all of his/her family went to Haiti to help out, and they were all denied re-entry. Happy now?) But we needn’t join Caplan in his helicopter to appreciate the force of his arguments against restrictions on immigration. Caplan addresses four arguments against free immigration, focusing on its effects on low-waged workers, welfare spending, cultural cohesion and the political sphere; he argues in each case that the costs may not be as high as they’re made out to be, and that any costs which are incurred can be mitigated at a lower overall cost than the cost currently imposed by restricting immigration. He concludes:

there are cheaper and more humane solutions for each and every complaint. If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote.

There’s a lot to like about this paper (I’ve always considered myself a libertarian Marxist), but two aspects of Caplan’s argument gave me pause. One, exemplified by the passage quoted above, is the nonchalantly instrumental use made of some fairly sweeping restrictions on citizenship. It seems to me that to declare that any member of a defined category of individuals will be denied the vote – or denied welfare benefits, or taxed at a higher rate on equivalent income – is to institutionalise inequality, making members of that category significantly unequal to the majority in their enjoyment of the benefits of citizenship. In other words, Caplan is entertaining the possibility of addressing the lack of liberty involved in shutting people out from a given country by letting those people in as second-class citizens. (I don’t say Caplan is proposing doing so, as the main argument of his paper is that the disadvantages of free immigration are either non-existent or much less significant than we imagine. The second-class citizen solution is put forward as a subsidiary argument.)

I find this troubling on a number of levels. Firstly, if we’re talking in terms of nation states – as we plainly are if we’re talking about taxation and welfare benefits – I think it’s legitimate to treat the question of who is allowed to enter a country quite separately from the question of how people are treated within the country. Ultimately I’m for a world with no border controls and no borders, but ultimately I’m for a world with no wage labour. In the mean time, I think that making everybody within an arbitrary area on the map a full citizen, but making it difficult to enter that area, is a more equitable solution than making the border permeable but introducing gradations of citizenship within it. If that’s the only way to get to open borders, in other words, then I’m not so keen on open borders as I was. Secondly, I value citizenship as a good in itself, and I believe that universality (within a given political unit) is one of its key attributes; I’m unhappy with any solution (to any problem) which turns on instituting different categories of citizenship. (Needless to say, I’m opposed to this even – or especially – in cases where it is actually being done: I believe that people who don’t look for work should not be denied unemployment benefit, that visitors to the UK should not be made to pay for healthcare, that prisoners should not be deprived of the vote, and so on.) Thirdly, I wonder what the introduction of graduated citizenship for non-natives would do to citizenship as an experienced social category: would it accustom people to the idea of multiple citizenships, making it possible for further gradations to be introduced and for full citizenship to be restricted to a smaller group? Lastly, I’m particularly troubled by the thought of living in a country where second-class citizenship is imposed on a recognisable and unpopular minority – or, to put it another way, being ruled by a government which imposes second-class citizenship on such a minority. I wouldn’t like to live under a government like that for precisely the same reason that I wouldn’t want to live under a government that closed the borders: in both cases, the government would be differentially imposing restrictions on people disliked by most of its voters. It seems to me that there’s a certain political tone-deafness about Caplan’s paper when he floats these proposals. Immigration restrictions might be enacted by an anti-immigrant government courting immigrant-hating voters, but the same would surely be true of restrictions on benefits or voting rights for immigrants. Even if they were enacted in the purest spirit of right-libertarianism, they would be received as blows against an unpopular minority – and those who welcomed them would soon grow hungry for more.

Secondly, there’s an odd passage in the section in which Caplan addresses the effects of free immigration on the political sphere. The worry here – more of a worry for right-libertarians than for me, or indeed most of us – is that immigrants might bring a ‘statist’ political culture with them and shift their host country’s political spectrum to the Left. After noting that there isn’t much evidence of this happening (for good or ill), Caplan moves on to the effect of ethnic diversity on social solidarity, as expressed in support for a redistributive state. He cites research to the effect that the relationship between the two is inverse – more diversity, less solidarity – and comments:

Social democrats may find this tension between diversity and solidarity disturbing. But libertarians should rejoice: increasing foreigners’ freedom of movement may indirectly increase natives’ freedom to decide who deserves their charity.

Ahem. We weren’t actually talking about charity as such in fact that’s rather the point. (Sorry, just had to say that.) Anyway, there’s more where that came from:

Immigrants are the ultimate out-group. Even today, Americans publicly complain about “immigrants” in language they would never use for blacks or gays. If the knowledge that foreigners attend “our” public schools and seek treatment in “our” hospitals does not undermine support for government spending on education and health care, nothing will.

OK… what just happened? Right-libertarians should support free immigration, not only despite widespread hatred of immigrants but, in part, because of it? The thinking seems to be that right-libertarians should welcome a proprietary, in-group-based attitude to public services, because the extension of those services to immigrants will undermine that attitude and hence discredit the public services themselves. Pride in public services is all to the good, as long as it comes into conflict with the reality of public provision and generates disillusion; and hatred of immigrants is all to the good, as long as its main effect is to undermine social solidarity. Unrestricted immigration may lead to the development of a society of endemic self-centredness and mistrust (by multiplying the objects of distrust and fear), but this in itself should be welcomed: a cohesive, high-trust society is a society where people tend to support public provision of services.

What Caplan is expressing, or – what’s the word? – adumbrating here is the logic of the Death Spiral. If you start pointing out how public money is being spent on the wrong services (and especially) for the wrong people, that won’t lead to a trimmed and rationalised set of public services which everyone can be happy with – it’ll lead to an endless whittling away of those services, as more and more occasions for outrage are unearthed. What’s interesting about Caplan’s argument is that the Death Spiral is set out quite openly and frankly: the more immigrants are seen to be using public services, the more pressure there will be to reduce those services – and the less tolerance there will be for immigrants using them.

The underlying logic of the Death Spiral is cynical and simple: there is an out-group, there are people who will be satisfied by seeing it get a kicking, and their satisfaction can be exploited – either for political support or to further a larger objective, as in Caplan’s argument. We’re dealing here with what John Rawls called “other-directed preferences”. Rawls argued that a just political order should give equal weight to all citizens’ preferences, but only their “self-directed” preferences: my desire to have the vote, a decent education and opportunities in life should be recognised, but not my desire to deprive you of those things – even if there were a lot of ‘me’s and only a few ‘you’s. I think it’s definitive of populism that it valorises, and orchestrates, other-directed preferences: populism isn’t always socially reactionary, but even the mildest, most herbivorous populism expresses preferences directed at politicians (generally binding and restricting their actions). With Marxism, other-directed preferences aren’t part of the package, the odd revenge fantasy about bankers excepted; in action, Marxism is all about universal needs and generalised empowerment to achieve them. As for right-Libertarianism, Caplan’s unconcern for universal citizenship and his willingness to turn his hand to a Death Spiral argument both make me wonder. Certainly we shouldn’t judge the whole tribe by the Randians, with their grim relish in the come-uppance of the second-handers. Maybe right-Libertarianism isn’t just about dismantling public services, replacing citizenship entitlements with a cash nexus, and be damned to anyone who happens to be dependent on public provision when it all comes down; maybe at its core it’s a genuinely universalisable creed, which can be grounded in my, your, his and her own preference for liberty in just the same way that Marxism can be grounded in our shared preference to eat. But I wonder.

Bavarian gentians

Not every man has felt the pure delight
– the un-self-conscious delight – of sitting forward
suddenly upright and alert, a swallow of beer
still coating the back of his throat as he sits forward
alert on the stained and punctured leather cushion
Detroit soul hanging in the air unheard… it is not
as I say, every man who has known
the unthought joy of budging forward, alert,
glass in hand or close by, saying aloud
(and none too quietly), “Are you on crack?”
addressing the query to a book about the law.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch… I’m currently reading A debate over rights, for the second and probably not the last time. Heaven knows if I’ll ever make a living – or even score a research grant – out of this stuff, but as reading matter goes I am really enjoying it.

More importantly, I’m liking the directions it’s leading me. To be perhaps more clear than I usually am on this topic, it’s been my conviction for a while that (firstly) there’s something deeply unsatisfactory – something less than fully or universally human – about models of subjecthood predicated on a Kantian model of the rights-bearing individual; and that (secondly) all currently available alternatives – whether they start from a utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits to society as a whole or from less hard-edged assertions of the rights of the ‘community’ – are even worse. We – particularly a Marxist ‘we’ – need something better than a Kantian liberal model of society as composed of individual bearers of jointly compossible rights, but in order to get there I believe we’ll need to wring the liberal model dry, or push it till it breaks. It’s going to be a big job – and, in fairness, reading Kramer et al in a pub may not seem like much of a contribution to it. But it is giving me food for thought in great quantities – even, or especially, those passages I strongly disagree with – which I appreciate greatly. Thanks again, Matthew and Nigel.

Relax and float downstream

Updated 25/11 (third section)

1. And though she feels as if she’s in a play

When I was little, I had an imaginary friend. He used to go with me wherever I went. I used to talk to him inside my head and I knew that he could hear me. And sometimes I’d make wishes, and if I was very lucky he would grant them for me. Then I got a bit older, and I stopped going to church.
– Jimmy Carr

One more religion post, this one inspired by Derren Brown.

On the Fear and Faith programme broadcast last week, Derren Brown induced what he presented as a counterfeit religious experience in an unsuspecting – and unbelieving – volunteer. After talking to her for fifteen minutes in a highly atmospheric church crypt, he left her alone; at this point she felt a sudden urge to stand up and was overwhelmed by a sense of unconditional love, together with the sense that it had been available to her all her life. Some time later, Derren Brown explained how the trick had been worked (with lots of quasi-hypnotic suggestion techniques on his part) and impressed on her that she had done it all herself: the emotion was real, but it was all her own work, with no need to invoke God to explain it.

My immediate reaction was that Derren Brown had completely missed the point of what he was doing. He’d essentially love-bombed this woman, making her feel happy and important; then he’d talked to her about experiences of awe and wonderment, and about the incomprehensible vastness of the universe; then he’d evoked feelings of being cherished, of your life mattering in some absolute sense despite only being an infinitesimal speck within the vastness of the universe. (And then he’d left her alone in a church.) Whatever other NLPish cueing techniques he’d used, just by his manner and his choice of topics he’d steered this woman into feeling ‘religious’ emotions – but they’re emotions which are entirely real, valid and appropriate. You do matter; the universe that surrounds you (in time and space) is vast and incomprehensible; and there’s no better reaction to the massive contradiction between those two facts than a sense of wonder and gladness. So we’ve proved… what?

According to Derren Brown, we’d proved that it was possible to have a religious experience “without God”. Now, Derren Brown was a born-again Christian at one time, so to some extent he knows whereof he speaks, but this strikes me as a bizarre overstatement. For anyone who believes in God, God is in the vastness of the universe, as well as being in that sense of your existence being important and in your reaction to all this. In short, God was there all along. When it comes to the experience of believing in God, on the other hand, that sense of a rush of unconditional love is quite a specific experience; it’s certainly not something believers routinely feel, between one Sunday and the next. What matters in practice is not feeling that God is talking to you, but feeling that you’re trying to talk to God.

Derren Brown (and Jimmy Carr, also an ex-fundamentalist) would probably say that all this openness and doubt and silence is all very well, but it’s not religion as we know it; I could be talking about yoga, or Buddhism at a pinch, but not Christianity. Christianity, surely, is all about knowing that God exists, knowing that God has a plan for you and knowing that God is talking to you from day to day; this is precisely the background faith that Derren Brown’s volunteer didn’t have, which is why we can say that she had her experience ‘without God’.

I don’t know. It strikes me that the knowledge which comes from faith, however certain, is very different from the knowledge that comes from living in the world. Faith is always in dialogue with doubt; if faith-based knowledge was entirely free from doubt it would just be knowledge.

Or is it that simple?

2. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free

Someone came up to me, and he said to me
I know something that you don’t know.
I was captured by this stance, I gave a second glance
And said “I’ll follow where you go”
– Peter Perrett

This sense of faith as always being accompanied by doubt is what I was getting at in an earlier post about religion. Talking about the idea of religion as a comforter, with particular reference to death, I said

And in any case, just how much comfort can those ‘comforting’ beliefs really be, even if you manage to believe them? I’ve been to a couple of funerals where the continuing existence of the departed was emphasised heavily, and I felt that every restatement was prefixed by a tacit This certainly doesn’t appear to be true, but by God, it’s worth at least trying to believe.

I wonder just how much comfort that comforting knowledge could be – or perhaps what kind of comfort. In the watches of the night, surely the happiest clapper would find it hard to feel any real confidence that God would sort it all out. At my father’s funeral, the vicar told me my father still loved me. I didn’t believe him, but if I had it would just have given me something else for doubt to grapple with. I think what’s healthy and psychologically adaptive about religion is a kind of turning towards something vast and incomprehensible, in a spirit of humility and trust: there’s stuff in our lives that’s beyond understanding, we don’t have to sort it all out, it will be all right. Perhaps explicit religious beliefs – such as the professed belief that my father did still exist, despite all the evidence to the contrary – are a kind of mental exercise: here’s something vitally important to you which absolutely doesn’t make sense, but go with it and it will be all right.

Faith, I think, is always in a dance with doubt. But there are different kinds of dance, and some of them are less healthy than others. Ever since the first of these posts on religion I’ve been thinking I should link to this post; I read it seven years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. The mentality I’m describing goes something like “Something appalling has happened; God let it happen; we can’t understand it but it’ll all make sense some time, and it’ll be all right eventually“. What Justin described in that post is more like “Something appalling has happened; God let it happen; that’s the kind of thing he does, he could do it to us again any time, and we don’t deserve any better“. In other words, instead of opening to grief and bafflement in a spirit of trust, it closes down that grief and makes sense of it – and it makes sense of it by calling it a good thing and bowing down to whatever inflicted it. Doubt is in the dance only to the extent that it’s being emphatically trampled on by faith as it strives for certainty – and since the only things certain in life are loss and death, a God of loss and death is what faith gets pinned on. This is a life-denying, self-abasing, anti-human attitude – and if that was reliably what religion meant, I’d have nothing to do with religion.

Or there’s another form of dance with doubt which can also go under the name of religious belief, although this one takes other forms as well. It doesn’t usually last very long, either; it’s a bit of a young person’s game. I’m thinking of the kind of faith which enacts that doggedly repeated repression of doubt, but in the name of hopeful certainties: as if to say, I would ask questions about eternal life and the Creation and everything, but look – shiny! Everything‘s shiny! The closest I’ve come to this is when I was a novice conspiracy theorist; I fell for the old once you have eliminated the impossible trick over and over again, and found myself clutching some remarkably shiny truths about what was really going on. You can go down quite a rabbit-hole this way, and to be honest it can be quite a trip: the moment that scepticism says Can this be right? It doesn’t fit with how I think the world works, faith counters with Ah, but maybe that’s not really how the world works…, and you’re off again. Believing you’ve tapped into something that’s at once true, comprehensible and important is a heady experience, and letting doubt in on it seems like no fun at all. This kind of faith essentially shouts doubt down, or asks it to wait outside; once the dancing starts properly the faith is liable to collapse.

3. Hold on to that feeling

Sometimes you confuse me with Santa Claus
It’s the big white beard, I suppose
– Elvis Costello

I suppose that combination of true, important and comprehensible is what both these forms of belief share: they both offer truths that make life matter and make it understandable. To put it another way, they both present believers with the contradiction between our belief in our own specialness and the vast indifference of the universe, and they both resolve it. One worldview pictures God as the boss of the world, and from this perspective there is no mystery about why your little life has been trampled on: God did it, because that’s what he does, and he does it because he can. (Besides, who’s to say that you deserved anything better?) The other has God as a Father Christmas figure, with gifts for all the good boys and girls: your life can be as blessed as you feel it should be, and it will be, in the future. Just be good, be patient and don’t stop believing…

It was interesting seeing Derren Brown explaining the characteristics of the religious belief he was going to induce; interesting, as well, seeing how animated he became as he talked about ideas like that of God looking down on each one of us and intervening in our lives. I felt that he, having been a born-again Christian, was harking back to a young person’s religion stocked with shiny, doubt-repressing beliefs: the kind of religion which would interpret the volunteer’s experience by saying yes, that definitely was God’s love you felt, no, it couldn’t have been anything else, yes, that definitely was God actually talking directly to you, absolutely definitely, I wouldn’t consider any other explanation for a moment (and repeat).

If you’re trying to ward off that kind of religious belief, then saying “those are real emotions you’re feeling, but God didn’t produce them” makes a degree of sense – it certainly lets some light in. But if religion is an orientation to the baffling vastness that somehow contains our incomprehensibly significant lives, and if God is a name for that vastness and some people’s experiences of it, then what Derren Brown’s volunteer experienced wasn’t a fake religious experience at all – it was the real thing.

One final analogy, which came to me after I’d read a passage from (bizarrely enough) Derren Brown’s book Tricks of the Mind. Despite (or because of) being an alarmingly proficient hypnotist himself, Derren Brown is very concerned about the ethics of hypnosis, believing that it can do a lot of harm in the hands of untrained or thoughtless users. He argues that it’s essential to talk hypnotic subjects down, so that when they leave they’re in no doubt that they’re no longer hypnotised. You can see his point. A mysterious influence you can’t understand – seemingly preventing you from getting up, lowering your arm, remembering your own name or whatever – is all good fun in a theatre, but it’s not something you’d want cluttering up your mind once you’re back in the real world. What interested me was the comparison which he drew with magic – where, clearly, audiences do experience something they can’t understand and go home without having it explained. Quote:

it seems wrong that the argument that ‘hypnosis isn’t real’ should absolve the hypnotist of all responsibility towards the welfare of his participants. If a hypnotist were able to say to his audience, ‘If you come up, please just play along with everything,’ it might be argued that the subjects should then be responsible themselves. However, given that he is going to manipulate, bully or cajole rather vulnerable people into anything from playing along to really living out what he suggests, and in a way that might be very confusing or unsettling for them, there is a sense in which one should not just immediately decide that he can walk away from any duty of care.

Now perhaps one might argue that according to that logic, a magician should then be held responsible if a participant in a card trick takes the magic way too seriously and loses so much sleep following the performance that he develops an illness. However, this would be a very unusual case, and clearly a reasonable person would not be expected to react in that way. In our hypnosis scenario, though, it is more understandable that a participant might leave the show troubled if handled unprofessionally.

I think what’s troubling about hypnosis, if not handled properly, is that it puts the subject through something which seems entirely real but doesn’t make any sense – and then leaves the subject to try and make sense of it. Magic does something similar, except that it tells the people who experience it, loud and clear, not to worry about making sense of it: it’s just magic. Leaving a hypnotic subject suspecting that she might still be subconsciously under another person’s control – or for that matter leaving her believing that hypnosis has transformed her life for the better – is very much the way those two narrow, doubt-repressing forms of religious belief work. Derren Brown’s scruples about the correct use of hypnosis, as well as being very much to his credit, are of a piece with his opposition to religion, as he sees it. The irony is that the magician – performing the impossible and then saying, You’ve seen what you’ve seen, don’t worry about making sense of it – is creating something much more like what I’d consider a religious experience.

A moment worth waiting for

I’ve been pleased by the response to the last couple of posts, including the corrections to my theology (cosmogony?) offered by a couple of commenters – although they do tend to undermine the argument I was making, so I’m not going to update the post to address them. The second post – the one derived from comments on Crooked Timber – was a bit more uneven; I think there’s some good stuff there (if I say so myself) but also some stuff that deserved the challenges it got from the CT sceptics. I’m going to use this space to think about which was which.

1. The Good Bits (I think)

faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

I think this is true – more importantly, I think it’s the right way round – but it’s only part of the truth; that phrase expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing is carrying an awful lot of weight, and getting a bit squashed by it. And what is the “value” of death? At a subjective level, surely, death is the greatest and most terrible challenge to everything we value, as well as being a universal and inescapable fact. “Expressing a sense of the value” is a coffee-morning phrase for something much more problematic and difficult – “the value of death” cashes in, roughly speaking, as she’s gone and I will never, ever see her again – and where the hell does that leave me?

But that’s also something people do with religion.

What do you do when the old man’s gone -
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song -
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). … The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

The thing is, I think that being human is deeply, deeply problematic – why wouldn’t it be? Thinking meat – what’s that about? House a reflective consciousness in a simian brain and you’re bound to get a bit of friction. I think churches are a good place to take those problems and work with them – although not the only place, obviously. Atheists would say that the fact that churches rely on a belief in God is a bug; I think the fact that they house practices that produce a belief in God is a feature, and an interesting one.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people. … We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to [saying that non-believers are] “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”.

The idea of holding a belief without asserting that people who denied that belief were wrong provoked a lot of resistance, but I think it’s still a valid point. Saying “I believe X, but I’m not going to say that X-deniers are wrong” is a way of saying that, in a particular (and important) area, it’s not up to me to decide what’s correct or incorrect; I may never know what’s correct or incorrect, or if I was told I might not understand. It’s a Horatio moment – a way of saying that there are more things in heaven and earth than our philosophy dreams of.

One of the most valuable things religion does, I think, is to confront the believer with something they cannot possibly understand. What this is is secondary; what’s important is the feeling of being at the limit of your understanding and being at peace with that. Because life will throw things at you that permanently exceed your understanding, and the ability to be at peace with them will serve you well.

Believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day. In which context, I like the idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

This also provoked a bit of resistance, mostly along the lines of “I trust the people who have given me good reason to trust them”. (Yes, I remember being young and in love.) Maybe some people do go through life up- and downgrading everyone they deal with, divulging a bit more or a bit less personal information, allowing themselves a bit more or less spontaneous emotional engagement. I think that sounds like Hell, and I don’t think it’s the way most people live. The belief in God is a lot like the belief that your partner loves you, or that the people you work with aren’t going to stitch you up – it’s not so much a belief as a commitment to choose to believe, an orientation of trustful commitment, extended in the case of religion to the universe and all that surrounds it. And I think there’s something to be said for that.

2. A little light pushback

“Religion certainly does provide comfort to a lot of people in difficult situations, but does that make it a good thing? Follow the ‘opiate of the people’ analogy – opiates bring vital relief to people in severe pain, but we don’t think being a junkie is a good way to live your life. Perhaps religious beliefs are good to have when you need a comforting illusion, but they’re illusions that should be abandoned as soon as you feel mentally strong enough.”

My answer to this one is that I don’t think religious beliefs are comforting in any easy sense. The most comforting thing I heard from anyone in religious clothing after my mother died was something along the lines of “It’s time to let go” – as if to say, You’ve run into a wall that you can’t get past; perhaps you should turn round now and go home. (Not that going home was just a matter of going home, if you see what I mean.) I don’t think anybody told me my mother was watching over me or that I’d see her again, and if they had I wouldn’t have believed it. Religion, for me, is something that takes you to the very edge of abandonment and despair, and stays with you there.

And in any case, just how much comfort can those ‘comforting’ beliefs really be, even if you manage to believe them? I’ve been to a couple of funerals where the continuing existence of the departed was emphasised heavily, and I felt that every restatement was prefixed by a tacit This certainly doesn’t appear to be true, but by God, it’s worth at least trying to believe. Anyone committed to believing that their departed parent was having a high old time up there, strumming a harp and chatting with Einstein, would also be committed to believing that something that appeared to be unbearable and incomprehensible actually made sense, except that it made sense in some way that couldn’t be understood either. Which isn’t that comfortable a place to be – in fact, I think it’s pretty much on the edge of abandonment and despair. But with a sense of not being alone there.

“Is it really a good thing to be confronted by something you can’t possibly understand? Doesn’t that associate religion rather strongly with ignorance and lack of curiosity? For that hit of blissful non-comprehension, wouldn’t it be quicker just to believe that God made the world in seven days? Never mind that you don’t understand how it happened – it’s a religious truth, so it’s meant to be incomprehensible!”

I’ll take this one on: yes, it is a good thing to be confronted by something you can’t possibly understand. It’s good to look at something you don’t understand and realise you don’t understand it (as distinct from thinking that if you don’t understand it it must be nonsense). It’s also good to learn more and understand more. But there will always be something you don’t understand, and there will always be some things you can’t understand. I think that’s a good thing to recognise. The alternative is to think that there isn’t anything that, in principle, you couldn’t understand. That might work for the law of torts or the Keynesian multiplier, but it wouldn’t do you much good with “why does everything die?”

“Fine, but you don’t need religion for that – just a reasonably well-developed sense of wonder and humility.”

Never said you did need it – just that religion is, often, a carrier of those things.

3. The less good bits

Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it. … Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff.

That ‘of course’ is doing rather a lot of work – or perhaps it’d be truer to say that it’s avoiding rather a lot of work. There’s a real problem here. I argued that religious ‘truths’ aren’t incompatible with scientific fact, because where they make factual propositions they’re not presented as law-like statements. Nobody’s saying that people who die generally rise again after three days, quite the reverse – Christians believe that Christ’s resurrection was miraculous precisely because it was an exception to the laws of death and decomposition. And it’s these localised, miraculous exceptions – at most – which believers are asked to commit to, and which they grapple with more or less effectively. But there’s no particular reason why the package of religious ‘exceptions’ should be limited to those relating directly to the life of Jesus. What about the plagues of Egypt? What about Aaron’s rod? What about God speaking to Abram? Come to that, what about the creation of the world in seven days? We know that this isn’t how the cosmos looks as if it works, but after all, this is an exception to all those rules…

I haven’t got an answer to this one, except to say that there’s nothing in Christianity to stop you travelling relatively light. Figurative interpretations of the Bible have a much longer history in Christianity than literal readings; by the time you’ve finished grappling with impossible beliefs and finding ways to believe in them, you may well come to the conclusion that God worked in his mysterious way through the Big Bang, the Nile flooding cycle and various other things, and generally kept his powder dry for the big performance in 30 AD. (In the immortal words of Wikipedia: “30 April – After being condemned to death by the Jewish court known as the Sanhedrin Jesus of Nazareth is crucified at Golgotha[citation needed]“.)

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion  – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

The weasel words here are “your daily life”. Anyone who believes in the ultimate overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat, say, is unlikely to find much evidence for the underpinnings of this belief in their daily life, but if they follow the news for more than a day or two they’ll find enough. Whether evidence of God working his purpose out will also be apparent is more debatable. Perhaps the point that needed developing here was what was meant by a belief in God, or by orienting your life by way of such a belief. In other words, the question is not whether class struggle is a reality, but whether it’s a good framework for judging whether things are going well or badly. Similarly with a belief in God, and the beliefs that follow from it – above all the belief that humanity was made in the image of God, which makes each human life enormously valuable. And yes, you can find Christians campaigning against abortion on these grounds, but also against euthanasia, against the death penalty, against war, against poverty and political programmes that entrench it. Hence Christian Aid’s marvellous slogan, “We believe in life before death”.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Again, you don’t need religion for any of this (and, again, I’m not religious myself) – you just need a belief in people. But religion is, often, a carrier of that belief.

For me, religion is a way of dealing with the incomprehensible – and sometimes incomprehensibly terrible – facts of human life, a way of honouring things in life that seem to need honouring, and a way of giving due respect to people. Or rather, it’s one particularly specialised example of a family of cultural practices which offer ways of doing these things. It’s not a bad thing.

Falling to bits, gloriously

This post at Crooked Timber sparked an interesting and only intermittently acrimonious debate about whether religious belief is inherently irrational or self-contradictory, and how best to combat religious reactionaries. I got stuck in and ended up essentially playing a Christian on the Internet, despite not being one in real life. It was an interesting debate, though, and really made me think. Here are some of my comments. (Italics are other people’s comments; I’ve included links to their original comments as well as to mine.) Discussion centred on four inter-related topics:

  • the relationship of faith and practice (and by extension the relative importance of the two)
  • the truth-status of religious claims (if someone believes that Jesus was the son of God, are they committed to believing that someone who doesn’t believe that is wrong?)
  • whether beliefs grounded in faith set themselves above rational argument, so that a Christian can always end the debate by saying “it’s what I believe“; and
  • whether reactionary claims made in the name of religion are a good reason for arguing against religion, or (as I argued) a good reason for not doing so.

It’s a bit of a comment-dump – or rather, it is a comment-dump, slightly rearranged – but parts of it may prove interesting.

1. Who are these people and why do they do it?

I’ve been playing with the idea that religion is a practice first, a faith second and a set of factual propositions third. First, you commit yourself to a certain way of living, a certain set of practices (even if that’s no more demanding than going to church once a week and saying ‘Yes’ if somebody asks if you’re a Christian, it’s still a different way of living). Second, in the context of those practices and in the company of others who share that commitment, you experience (or learn to experience) a sense of the sacred, of reverence for something numinous. Third, as part of the work you do to maintain that way of living and recreate that experience, you submit yourself to the mental discipline of believing what your church asks you to believe. Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it.The atheist’s view of religion often seems to centre on the third step, which is much the least fundamental. To the atheist’s question You believe that? a Christian will often answer “Well, I try to.” (Spufford: “Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed”, emph. added.) And believing religious propositions can mean grappling with them, trying to make them make sense, rather than simply believing them literally. (It was a Bishop of the Church of England who described the Biblical story of the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”.)

Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff. But there’s plenty of room to argue against those beliefs while still taking religious practice & religious community to be valuable forms of social life and granting some validity to subjective religious experience. You won’t find any stronger opponent of reactionary right-wing Christians than a radical left-wing Christian.

Faith which wasn’t accompanied by the possibility of doubt wouldn’t be faith, it’d be (subjectively) certain knowledge – just as the belief that Christ rose from the dead wouldn’t be at all remarkable if we didn’t simultaneously hold the belief that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible.As for what faith is, as I said above I believe that religious practice comes first, the experience of collective reverence for the numinous second and commitment to factual propositions a slow & often troubled third – as if to say, if worshipping Jesus together with these people works as it clearly does (for me), then perhaps I should take what these people say about Jesus to be true, however impossible it seems. Saying that faith is wrong because it entails believing six impossible things before breakfast didn’t work on Tertullian and it doesn’t work much better now.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express

Reminds me of a couple of lines from Jethro Tull which have lodged in my mind (potency of cheap music and all that) -

What do you do when the old man’s gone -
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song -
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). I think that’s psychologically quite powerful – and it reminds me in turn of Roy Bhaskar’s strictures on the image of “a magic transportation into a realm free of determination, as imagined by both utopian and so-called ‘scientific’ socialists”, to which he counterposed a project of “transition from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

This is where Christians and their defenders really annoy me. Sure it is easy to poke holes in the arguments of naive rationalists, but the validity of those criticisms do not justify the jump to “Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior”.

I’m defending Christians, but I’m certainly not advocating that anyone convert – I’m not a Christian myself. I think religious practice can play a valuable part in people’s lives, just as practices like living in a commune, hanging out with artists, writing music, political campaigning, folk dancing and psychotherapy can do for other people. I think all these things can get you to somewhere similar, and that it’s somewhere worth going to; I don’t think you need to be religious to have a “religious experience”. I do think that being religious can be a way of getting there, and that for a lot of people it’s as good as any other, or even better.

the atheist asks why faith and you reply … what exactly?

My one-sentence answer is that faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and that collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

Now, you can live a happy and productive life without ever going to Midnight Mass, and you can be a devout believer and a horrendous, miserable fuck-up. You can get through life perfectly well without publicly giving value to the big things in life; you can give value to the big things in life in non-religious ways which don’t ‘feel’ sacred; you can get an experience of the sacred without being formally religious. A world without religion wouldn’t be a world without any of the valuable things currently borne by religion. But those things are real, and they are borne by religion.

it seems to me inherently dangerous (because it exposes you to exploitation),

Believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day. In which context, I like the idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

Any Christian believes that God sees more and knows more than any human being, including him- or herself. All statements about God are approximations; prayer is an orientation to something unknowable, something outside ourselves. So the truth of a statement like “Jesus is the son of God” is, more or less by definition, one element of a greater truth that we don’t and, as human beings, can’t fully comprehend. For all we know, someone could go through life denying the divinity of Jesus and yet picking up more bits of that truth than a staunch Christian. If that’s a possibility, what sense would it make to say that they were wrong to say Jesus wasn’t the son of God? Christians believe they understand a bit of God’s nature and they believe they’re genuinely oriented towards it, but they don’t know.

The emotional response that the religious experience promotes, on the other hand, is not to feel sad, but rather to feel guilty. To feel like you are a bad, terrible, awful fuck-up of a person, who deserves, who needs to be punished. Any mercy here is, in fact, the tyrant suspending the doom he himself has pronounced.

First off, you’re clearly talking about Christianity specifically, not religion in general. More importantly, while I won’t deny that some churches do put a heavy stress on the experience of guilt, I think it’s actually a distortion of the Christian message, which is much more about forgiveness. Paraphrasing from memory, Rowan Williams said once, “People think that when they leave religion behind they’re leaving sin and guilt, but if you look at the papers you see that sin and guilt and condemnation are alive and well. What people leave behind when they turn away from God is forgiveness, the sense that our sins won’t burden us forever.”

Repentance/forgiveness/redemption is one of the most psychologically powerful and rewarding experiences we go through. And, if the person you’ve wronged will forgive you, so much the better, but what if they don’t – or what if you’ve lost touch, or they’ve died? I think a large part of the appeal of Christianity is right there.

2. Do they really believe all that stuff?

God isn’t an empirically testable proposition, and neither is the Kantian categorical imperative or the emergence of the proletariat as a class-for-itself or the maximisation of subjective utility. I believe that people who find it useful to talk in terms of proletarian self-awareness could in principle find common ground with people who talk in terms of rational utility maximisation, given a lot of work and good will on both sides; I also believe that in practice that conversation tends never to happen, for good reasons. (What is impossible, on the other hand, is finding empirical proof that one set of ideas is the truth about reality and the other isn’t.) I don’t think religious belief is any different.

And yes, that does commit me to believing that common ground could be found between people who find it useful to talk in terms of God and people who talk in terms of a Godless universe, given a lot of work and good will on both sides. In practice, of course, that’s a conversation that really doesn’t tend to happen.

there are some fairly basic propositions that one would have to say “yes, that is correct” in order to be a Christian, and therefore that people who think something different are incorrect

Yes and no – i.e. yes to the first statement, no to the second. The idea that there are many ways to God is very widely held among religious believers – probably more widely than the idea that everyone has to convert or be damned. Even C.S. Lewis, when he wrote his version of the Day of Judgement in the Last Battle, has some believers in the Calormene death-god Tash end up being saved on the grounds that they would have believed in Aslan if they’d had the chance – and his theology wasn’t exactly liberal. Christians know that they’re saved by their belief in Christ, but they’re also aware (well, many of them are) that they don’t know the mind of God and hence can’t know that everyone else is damned.

Aslan judges some [Calormenes] – and not others – to have been good enough to be saved, which must mean that “worships Aslan” isn’t a necessary condition of “good enough to be saved”. In any case, the “sea of faith”/”many paths to God” mentality is very widespread among your actual believers.

Transubstantiation and the resurrection aren’t factual statements about how the world works – anyone who believes in them also knows perfectly well that this isn’thow the world works. That makes religious faith a very particular type of ‘denial’ – a belief that universal physical laws are/were suspended in this one place, or rather a commitment to holding that belief.

Some of the discussion here defends what religion could be, with beliefs that are inconsequential, metaphorical mush, and ignores what (Christian) religion more commonly is, an acceptance of certain claims as boldface “truth”.

Firstly, general physical truths – those fossils actually are relics of Noah’s Flood – are in no way core to Christianity; lots of Christians reject them totally. Reading the Bible literally is a very modern idea. Christ’s Resurrection isn’t really a “boldface truth” – everyone who believes it literally happened also believes it was a unique exception to the boldface truths of death and decomposition. Secondly, holding those two contradictory beliefs together leads directly into what you denigrate as “metaphorical mush”, which is much more common – much more normal – among Christians than you seem to think. If you were to ask a Christian (sympathetically) what they really think happened on Easter Sunday or on the road to Emmaus, I think you’d get a ‘metaphorical’ answer as often as not.

Of course, if you ask for boldface truths and to hell with the metaphor – yes, yes, never mind “in a kind of a way”, never mind “they had a real experience of something”, did he come back to life or didn’t he? – boldface truths are what you’re going to get. All the more so if your starting question was “are Christians so stupid or ignorant as to believe that a three-day-old corpse can come back to life?”

this “many ways to God” thing is trying to have your mushy cake and eat it.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people.Atheists on this thread seem to be asking whether it’s possible to be a Christian and have both a heart and a brain; when we answer Yes, they say Ah, but we’re talking about being a rigorously consistent Christian. Newsflash – there’s no such thing. Apart from anything else, rigorously consistent with what? There are two separate Creation stories, only one of which features Adam’s rib (the other has one of my all-time favourite lines from the Bible, “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them”). The Gospels tell three versions of one set of stories and one radically different set of stories; you can’t believe them all, they can’t all have happened. And so on. The Bible, and a fortiori Christianity, isn’t about the-book-is-on-the-table statements of fact.

There are plenty of devout Christians, firm believers in the divinity of Christ, who nevertheless believe that not everyone who doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ is damned. I can back this up, as well. God is omniscient, we’re not. God sees who he’s admitting to Heaven, we don’t. We can know that we’re saved, which gives us good reason to convert people if we can. However, we can’t know that everyone who misses out on the Good News is damned, or that there’s no other way for God to make himself known to them.

This is perfectly good Christian theology – as well as being a belief held more or less articulately by lots and lots of Christians – and it seems to me that it’s a substantial improvement on believing that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is damned. That belief is a massive stumbling-block for anyone who believes in an omnipotent and benevolent God; in my experience it’s only embraced willingly by people who want God all to themselves and haven’t really got the point of the Gospels at all.

What you can’t logically do, if you believe that Jesus was the son of God, is think that other people believing something directly contradictory to that (ie that Jesus is not the son of God) are also correct. Ergo, they are wrong.

They appear wrong from our vantage-point, which we know to be imperfect. It would be the height of arrogance to say that they are wrong. Besides, what work is ‘wrong’ doing here? There’s been no objection to “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may do just as much good in the world”, or to “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may still be saved”. Why are those acceptable, and yet “I’m a Christian but I’m not going to say that non-Christians are wrong” is the badge of lily-livered pusillanimity that doesn’t deserve the name of religion?

We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”. Which is not a “mushy”, “woolly” or “uncommitted” position, although it does have a certain humility.

Do Christians believe it’s possible for people to return from the dead? No.
Do Christians believe that Jesus did return from the dead? Yes.

[NB when I wrote this I'd forgotten all about the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the faithful at the end of days, and was thinking in terms of people coming back from the dead here and now. The physical impossibility of resurrection from the dead is the main point here.]

At the risk of C. S. Lewis-esque reductivism, it seems to me that this contradiction gives you a range of possibilities:

1. Christians are all too stupid to realise it’s a contradiction.
2. Christians don’t really believe it and are all lying when they say they do.
3. Christians are all batshit crazy, only all in the same or similar ways.
4. Christians go through a particular mental process which they call ‘belief’ or ‘faith’.

1. is plainly not true, 2. seems improbable, and 3. is basically a less flattering description of 4. And that mental process is what I’ve been describing.

3. You can’t argue with a Christian – or can you?

Once you have conceded that “I feel it in my heart”, “this makes emotional sense to me” or “this makes me a better person” are adequate justifications for the conclusion that there is a higher intelligence behind the universe or that souls exist, you have given away any intellectual tools to criticize somebody who feels it in their heart that homosexuals should be stoned.

This is an “I refute it thus” moment, surely. If this were the case, the only way a believing Christian could respond to the vilest things done in the name of Xtianity would be to say “who knows whether this is God’s will or not, let us pray”. Fortunately that isn’t the case – there is quite spirited debate among Christians about exactly what it is that God would have believers do in the world. You could say they’re being inconsistent, but I don’t think they’d agree – they’d say they’re witnessing as Christians, and arguing with fellow-Christians is part of that (as it has been since St Paul). You’d end up in the position of an atheist telling religious believers that they’re not religious enough.

you still have not shown me where religions can move beyond arguing, actually resolve their differences and decide on anything unless they refer to a set of otherwise universally recognized cognitive tools that, consistently applied, shows their very religion to be indefensible

I don’t believe “religions” do anything. I believe that Christians can have difficult, intense and productive discussions about what their shared faith requires them to do, and that those discussions can – with some difficulty – be extended to people who aren’t Christians. This obviously means that being a Christian involves more cognitive faculties than direct reference to inward conviction. I don’t accept that using those cognitive faculties would necessarily involve those Christians becoming atheists, for the simple reason that it plainly doesn’t: you can be a Christian and an intellectual. And I don’t think this should surprise us, any more than we’d be surprised to discover that an intellectual can also be a phenomenological existentialist.Your rationalism doesn’t do the work you want it to. You can show (that word again) that pi doesn’t equal 3 and that crop rotation makes sense, and argue those propositions down to number theory & molecular chemistry respectively. You can’t show that “religion is not based on anything more than fantasy”, any more than you can show that to be true of phenomenological existentialism, Kantian jurisprudence or revolutionary anarchism. You can certainly show that you can’t ground religion in scientific enquiry, but nobody here is saying that you can.

Reason is good for these areas where I use it daily, but not for these my cherished beliefs*. Why? Because that is different. It just is

Christians do use reason, they just don’t apply the scientific method to the foundation of their beliefs. Neither do philosophers, political thinkers or anyone else who thinks ethics and morality are worth arguing about. You can’t find the Holy Spirit with an ammeter; you can’t find class consciousness or the Husserlian epoche that way, either. It doesn’t make those things any less real and interesting & worth arguing about, for those who think they’re real and interesting & worth arguing about. (Those who don’t are free to argue about other things.)

I explicitly wrote that there are indeed ways of knowing, if you will, that aren’t scientific in the narrow sense, such as mathematics, deductive logic, moral philosophy, economics, history, art history, etc.

But the thing is, these areas all have more or less well-defined ways of deciding when a proposition is dead wrong.

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion in this respect – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

There are lots of bad ways to be religious. Elevating revelation over reason is – not always but often – a very bad idea; cherry-picking scripture so as to give your own prejudices divine sanction is a bad thing to do; and treating God like a lucky rabbit’s foot (“please let the bus come now!”) is silly and childish. But it’s possible to argue against all of those things from a religious standpoint, and people do.

4. What about the bad guys?

the fact that religious claims are grounded in something other than rational enquiry doesn’t preclude believers from engaging in rational debate. Arguing that rational debate isn’t consistent with religious belief, and that Christians should therefore abandon either one or the other, is essentially criticising real Christians for not living up to your image of them. In real life the conversation between the liberal believer (L) and the homophobe (H) would go something like this:

H: “Jesus said we should kill homosexuals!”
L: No, he didn’t.
H: “Well, OK, not as such, but he did say [bullshit argument relying heavily on selective quotation]“
L: [Refers back to text and demolishes bullshit argument]
H: “But I just know that Jesus would say we should kill homosexuals!”
L: Well, I really think you ought to consider that you’re mistaken, because that goes against everything we know about Jesus. When did you start thinking this? Are you sure you’re not working out some of your own issues?
H: “But I’ve had a personal revelation! Jesus appeared to me and told me!”
L: I think you need help.

No different from the same kind of argument between a liberal rationalist and a rationalist homophobe – just replace Jesus with Darwin, say.

it remains true that large numbers of people, some of them important, do make truth claims about the state of the world based on their ancient poetry, and try to make life tougher for the rest of us on the authority of these claims. They need to be fought, and if the blowback from that fight upsets the nice club members who don’t actually cause problems for others, I’m genuinely sorry

Those people need to be fought with the “nice club members” on your side. If you’re fighting the NCMs as well, you’re fighting the wrong enemy.

What you need to do is pick your fights. If you’re fighting Creationism, fight Creationism. If you’re fighting sexism, fight sexism. In both cases you’ll have lots of Christians on your side. If you’re fighting the doctrine that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary… er, why, exactly?

Restrictions on abortion? Discrimination against gays? Lots of Christians oppose both. As for televangelists, there’s a reason people like Oral Roberts found their own churches. Campaign against what you want to campaign against, and I can pretty much guarantee that some Christians will be campaigning alongside you. Campaign against Christianity, and not only do you lose those potential allies, you get bogged down in side-arguments with people like me.

If you’re fighting televangelist scumbags, the many, many Christians who (a) believe in the power of prayer and (b) despise televangelist scumbags are not your enemy.

In his statement, [the Bishop of Down and Connor] doesn’t try to make any logical arguments we could address, he just states that abortion is against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

So we say, off the top of my head, “There is nothing in his statement to suggest that closing this clinic would result in better outcomes for women; women desperate to terminate a pregnancy will always find a way, and the closure of this clinic would simply help to drive abortion services back underground. I may not be qualified to argue Catholic doctrine with the Bishop, but I know something about the realities of women’s lives, and I am quite certain that more women – and more children – will suffer avoidable pain and misery if this clinic is closed than if it is left open.”

Or you could say, “Women have a right to abortion services on demand, and no old man in a silly hat is going to tell us otherwise just because some old book tells him so.” Which do you think would go over better to a largely Catholic audience? It’s all about picking your fights, and picking your enemies.

Lots of Christians do believe horrible and hateful things. Somebody once told me that Mother Teresa would be eternally damned unless she converted to the right form of Christianity before she died, the form of Christianity that had got her out into the slums of Calcutta not being the right one. On one level that’s angels on the head of a pin – what happens after anyone dies has never really interested me* – but it could have real effects; anyone who thought having the right beliefs was that important would presumably prioritise funding missionaries over funding famine relief.

So a kind of bigoted narrowness does, for many people, go along with belief in Christianity (go, as they say, figure). But here’s the thing: if bigotry always goes with religious belief and seldom appears without it, then religion’s your enemy. If bigotry sometimes goes with religious belief and sometimes with other beliefs, then bigotry’s your enemy – and un-bigoted religious believers are among your allies.

*In and of itself, that is, as I don’t believe that anything does. I do think what people believe about salvation and damnation is interesting & often very revealing.

To round it off I’ll just borrow a couple of other people’s comments, this time presented without any editing.

Zora 10.07.12 at 11:33 pm

I’m an American Zen Buddhist, in a sangha that doesn’t demand much in the way of faith. I’m not required to believe in a god — only in the efficacy of Zen practice. Or rather, that it’s worth trying out the practice. From that standpoint, the passionate denunciations of the atheists just whiz right past me. They’re not talking about me.

Yet I also find that I can read Christian or Muslim religious writings and say, “Yes, that’s SO.” I take God or Allah as a metaphor for those who need to experience their practice as a human relationship. The emotions evoked by this metaphor are powerful and useful. I recognize them. God is not my metaphor of choice, it does not resonate, but I cannot deny that it works for many people.

Isn’t that what Spufford is saying? That Christianity, as a practice, can cultivate love, compassion, serenity, acceptance of what must be endured. I understood what he said, and agreed — despite starting from an entirely different viewpoint.

Bruce Wilder 10.09.12 at 10:31 pm

The outside / inside dichotomy might be applied differently depending on whether you think the stress, in the OP title — Francis Spufford and the inner life of belief — should be placed on “belief” or “inner life”.

The very notion that the individual might have an inner experience — inalienable, subjective, private and owned — of which she needs to make sense, and which might, despite its seeming material inaccessibility to shared social observation, contain both a longing for, and a means of connection to the whole, of which the individual is an ephemeral part, whether that “whole” is a family, a society, a political state, a living planet or a universe, . . . seems curiously remote from the problems of political deliberation or ethical behavior.

Like others in the thread, I am troubled by the religious grasping at arbitrarily chosen, and apparently loosely held, “beliefs”, and using passionate “faith” in those supposed “beliefs” as a cudgel with which to bully others in various political disputes, or as a personal dispensation from personal shame or ethical responsibility. Putting those resentments against religion aside, the honoring of personal, inner experience, intrigues me.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express. I sometimes make the point in comments, that political arguments often take the form, not of a logical proposition like a syllogism, but of an hypnotic trance induction. We long to be hypnotized, to put aside our rationalizing, defensive consciousness; and, in persuading others, we instinctively play on this longing to be, literally, open to ideas and values.

If I come to the aid and comfort of a friend, who has experienced a tragedy or an accident, I don’t offer scientific analysis. I offer reassurance, touting “beliefs” which are objectively false as factual propositions, but are, nonetheless, aimed at repairing the person’s healthy narcissism. I am thinking of commonplace nonsense, like, “you are so lucky that the accident was not so much worse . . . ” It is important to hear that you are “lucky” — most especially, when you have been confronted with incontrovertible evidence that you are not — that you belong, that you are part of the whole, that you have as much right and purpose in being here, as the rocks, and the daffodils and the bugs and the stars.

We do a lot of this seeking after inner comfort and transcendant meaning, and not just in formally religious settings. I suppose that this is what people are mostly doing in a Tony Robbins seminar. It is why a business executive reads the Harvard Business Review. Maybe, following Aristotle, it is what we find in a great tragic drama. Or, what people seek, and sometimes, find in mind-altering drugs; or at AA meetings. It is what people want from magic or thinking about ESP and extra-terrestrials, or from sexual intercourse. It is what the coach is providing the team every day in practice, and in a pre-game pep talk.

I have listened to religious people, struggle with the concepts, say, of Darwinian evolution, and sense that their concern is that they are being asked to give up some necessary element of a favorite fairy tale, which has helped them find meaning or motivation in the necessary disciplining of their scarier impulses. They really don’t have to do molecular genetics or cure cancer (where factual and theoretical beliefs about evolution might have some purchase), but they do have to refrain from cheating their employers or killing their mother-in-laws, and hide their fear of being cheated by their employers or being killed by their mother-in-laws. If the universe doesn’t have an inherent moral structure of natural law and an all-observing God, well, then how can we justify ethical self-restraint in ourselves or expect ethical self-restraint from strangers?

I’m not always sure what the point would be in engaging people on the factualness of religious belief. I was raised in a Catholic tradition, which, following Thomas Aquinas, regards religious faith as focused on propositions, which are beyond factual refutation or confirmation, by definition. Of course, the bullying — exemplified by claims of papal infallibility — is front and center, as well. And, then there’s the hypocrisy — if that’s even the right word, for the disowned emergence of the darkest impulses — of sexual molestation or Mother Theresa making nice with the dictators of Haiti. The pragmatic case for religious belief or practice seems curiously difficult to put — the bridge to ethics or politics a mirage in the desert’s shimmering distance.

If there’s a king in Heaven high

Attention conservation notice: just under 8,000 words(!) on varieties of religious experience, the size of the universe and the work of Jeremy Deller. Includes three pictures, one audio clip, one virtual gallery link and two hymns. Hat-tip to Ken Macleod.

1. Nobody knows who they were

The other Sunday we went here:

Sacrilege

It was just about as good as it looks. It was in Preston, for one day only – the day being the final day of Preston Guild, which we also saw a bit of (although we weren’t around for any of the processions). We booked a holiday in Guild Week the last time it came round – in 1992 – so I was glad that we’d showed our faces this time.

I’ll say a bit more about Sacrilege – the “bouncy Stonehenge” created by Jeremy Deller – a bit later. (If you want to skip straight there, find the next mention of Deller’s name.) Now, though, we’ll break for a hymn.

2. Heaven and earth shall flee away

God is working His purpose out
As year succeeds to year;
God is working His purpose out,
And the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time,
The time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.

I love that hymn. It’s completely barmy, but I love it. There’s that amazing, exorbitant image of the world being completely transfigured by the glory of God – just as wholly, just as ubiquitously as the sea is wholly and everywhere wet. I think what makes this verse really powerful, oddly, is the combination of that visionary image with the calm plod of the first six lines, which take quiet confidence to a new level of placidity: it will happen, it will definitely happen, and what’s more it will happen within a finite, countable period, such that we can actually say that the passage of time is bringing us nearer to the time when it will happen, as it definitely will. Sorry, drifted off there for a moment – when what will happen, again?

When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.

Oh, that. Fancy me forgetting.

The traditional Christian view of time was built on some definite fixed points at beginning, middle and end – all with Biblical warrant. In the beginning, Adam and Eve had sinned and been kicked out of Eden and into the real world, setting the whole thing going; in the middle, Jesus had redeemed mankind through His sacrifice; at the end… well, people weren’t sure exactly what would happen at the end, but it would certainly involve the end of time, the heavens being rolled up like a scroll and so forth. Now, we were somewhere between middle and end. We probably wouldn’t live to see the end, but as long as we died as Christians we could be sure that we would be there on the big day (or end of days). In between death and the end, depending who you talked to, was oblivion (which would be OK) or Heaven (which is nice).

If you took a few steps back from it all, the fixed points looked a bit different: all you really had was the need to put your faith in somebody who lived a very long time ago, to save you from the consequences of something that had apparently been done by somebody who lived an even longer time ago, consequences which would supposedly take effect at some unknown point in the future, almost certainly after you’d died. (The part about you dying, though – that definitely would happen.) As soon as you let doubt in on one corner of that picture, the whole thing goes a bit awry. What strikes me now about that hymn is how blithe its confidence is, how closed it is to any doubt or questioning. God – our God – has a purpose for the world; He’s putting it into practice, and when He’s finished the results will be (literally) heaven on earth; and this is definitely going to happen, possibly quite soon. It’s positively enthusiastic (OED: “Pertaining to, or of the nature of, possession by a deity”; “Pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of mystical delusions in religion.”).

From its tone I assumed initially that the hymn had found its way into Church of England hymnals either from a Methodist source or from even later revivalists, perhaps the Great Revival of the first decade of the twentieth century. I got the period about right, but otherwise my guess couldn’t have been more wrong. “God is working His purpose out” was written in 1894 by Arthur Campbell Ainger, who was a House Master at Eton. There seems to have been quite an appetite for under-the-counter millennialism in the nineteenth-century Church of England; for example, Lewis Hensley’s Thy Kingdom Come O God (1867) doesn’t just see the end of days as coming soon, it asks for it to hurry up (“Apocalypse now, please!”). There’s an anxious edge to Hensley’s hymn, as well as a weary Arnoldian pessimism (“By many deeds of shame/We learn that love grows cold”); his fixation on the end of the world is mildly desperate where Ainger’s is calmly confident. In their different ways, they both have a preoccupation with eternity which seems quite at odds with their comfortable social and theological position (Hensley was Vi­car of Ip­o­lyts-with-Great-Wy­mond­ly, no less).

As for Ainger, among his few other composing credits is “Carmen Etonense”, the Eton school song, whose chorus translates roughly “For as long as England’s shores are bathed in kindly sunlight, let Eton flourish! Eton shall flourish!” “Until the sun goes out” is a curious way to say “forever”; perhaps it was at the back of Ainger’s mind that the heavens would eventually be rolled up like a scroll, and that this would change things even for Eton College. It seems more likely, though, that Ainger saw God working His purpose out and Eton flourishing as very much the same thing. Perhaps the confident tone of the hymn came less from a sense of personal contact with God, more from the sense that Ainger and his class had always been blessed by God and always would be.

To be fair to Ainger, although his socio-cultural situation was more comfortable than most, the security he expressed in that hymn has been available to every other Christian since the second century AD. Existentially speaking, feeling that the whole of human history is put into its proper context by two irruptions of the divine – Christ’s sacrifice (firmly in the past) and the end of days (firmly in the future) – makes quite a comfortable framing for one’s own life. (You’re still going to die, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.) But how would it be not to have those anchor points? Or rather, how would it have been?

3. And Christ receive thy soul

The Harrowing of Hell is a traditional Christian belief; it’s not in the Bible, and can be seen as a bit of folk embroidery to patch up a hole in the Bible story. The thing is, Moses was damned. Great man and all that, met God and took down the commandments and so forth, but if you’re a Christian none of that’s going to get you saved. Faith in Jesus Christ is what you need, and that’s a tall order for people who were born several hundred years before Bethlehem. Bad luck, Moses – for the want of any alternative, he must have been damned to Hell, along with Aaron, King David, Abraham, old Adam and all. Of necessity this wasn’t spelt out in the Bible – the writers of the Old Testament didn’t know they were writing the Old Testament – but it was a logical deduction from the facts of salvation as set out in the Gospels (John in particular). This belief in turn gave rise to a folk belief that, before rising from the dead, Jesus had visited Hell and liberated everyone who was there purely because they were born at the wrong time – everyone who would have believed in him if they’d had the chance, in other words. Hell was ‘harrowed’ in the sense that it was thoroughly searched – combed, we’d say now – for righteous souls, who were permitted to ascend into Heaven.

That’s fine – well, it’s a bit of a hack, but it can be made to work – if you’re talking about a relatively limited number of people and a finite period of time. If you take into account what we now know about the number of different ways people have lived and the number of different places they’ve lived in, it starts to get a bit Horrible Histories…

JC: Greetings! I bring the good news of salvation through My death and resurrection to save all mankind, past, present and-
Aztec Priest: Sorry, could you repeat that? I was a bit distracted, what with all these demons gnawing my entrails and sticking knives in my – Ow! Look, stop that for a moment, will you? Sorry. You were saying.
JC: [sighs] Greetings-I-bring-the-good-news-of-salvation-through-My-
AP: Salvation? You’re going to get me out of here? Good man! I thought Quetzalcoatl would have sorted it out by now, to be honest, but I suppose he must be busy. Hang on, you’re not-
JC: No, I’m not Quetzalcoatl. I’m the Son of God. Well, I say ‘son’, I’m actually God in my own right as well. It’s quite interesting actually, God has three persons but at the same time-
AP: Son of a god? Which one? Not that I mind – if you’re going to get me out of here that is – I’m just curious.
JC: No, no, no, not son of a god, son of God. Look, can we get on with it?
AP: You’re the son of a god who thinks he’s the only one? Sounds a bit weird, but whatever. So which way did you say the exit was?
JC: No, it’s not quite that simple. Look, when you were alive, you didn’t believe in me, right?
AP: I’m not sure I believe in you now, mate. No offence, but the hallucinations you get after a few centuries of mind-numbing torment are something else.
JC: So, OK, you didn’t believe in me, but what I’m interested in now is, were you good?
AP: Well, I was a pretty good Aztec priest. It wasn’t always easy, though – I had to make a lot of sacrifices. Sacrifices! Get it? Oh, suit yourself.
JC: Yes… That’s actually not quite -
AP: No, I know what you mean. I think I was a pretty good bloke, really. Ask these guys, they all knew me. If you can get the demons to lay off long enough, that is. Look, will you stop that? We’re talking!
JC: Oh, this is ridiculous, I’ll never get round at this rate. Hold still for a moment, would you, I’ll just look into the secrets of your heart.
AP: Help yourself – with the work these demons have been doing you can probably see my heart from there already.
JC: Yes… yes… and it’s… yes. What do you know – apparently you’re one of the good ones. Off you go to Heaven. Over on the right – you see that dazzling light? Just head for that and keep going, they’ll sort you out when you get there. Come on, chop chop – I’ve got another three million to get through just in this corner, and that’s not counting the Incas.

The depth of the past, and the sheer geographical breadth of the past, are a bit of a problem for this model, at least in terms of surface plausibility. The problem’s compounded if we take into account the number of people living since the death of Christ who, with the best missionary will in the world, (will) have lived and died without any exposure to the Good News. Presumably they’re also Hell-bound, at least on a temporary basis, and presumably some kind of sorting-out operation will rescue the good ones at the end of days. If you put it all together, an awful lot of people are getting temporarily misfiled, and condemned to centuries or millennia of excruciating torment as a result.

And people aren’t the half of it.

4. O’er heathen lands afar

The observable universe is a sphere with a radius of 46 billion light years. (You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.) There are, on the latest estimate, in the region of 3 x 10^23 stars in the universe. I don’t know what proportion of those are Sol-like, but with numbers that high it doesn’t matter a great deal; even if the proportion’s one in a million, and only one in ten of those stars have small (non-gaseous) planets (which itself is a very low estimate), we’re still looking at a multiple of 10^16 rocky extra-solar planets. Not only that, but the universe is 1.4 x 10^10 years old – ten billion years older than Earth. (Which makes the idea of a ‘year’ a bit notional, but never mind.) Space is vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, and so is time – and my God, they’re full of stars.

What that means, though, is that there are innumerable times and places that the Good News of Christ’s resurrection doesn’t and cannot reach, thanks to the finite lifespan of stars and the limit imposed by the speed of light. As speed limits go, the speed of light is quite a high limit, but it is a hard limit: nothing in the universe can travel any faster. Which has some significant effects.

Picture a star as a dot, and picture a ring around it: we can call that the distance travelled by light in a second. Now imagine a whole series of concentric rings, representing the distance the star’s light will travel in one second, two seconds, three and so on. Now, as simple as it is, that diagram is overloaded – we’re using the distance between concentric circles to represent two different things, the distance travelled by light in a second and the second it takes to travel it. To remedy that we’ll need to use the third dimension: picture those concentric circles coming up out of the paper, each widening circle higher up than the one before. Height now represents time, while the horizontal dimensions represent distance in space. The shape you’ve got, if your visualisation is the same as mine, is a cone. As you move away from the star (the point at the bottom) you simultaneously move upward (the passage of time) and outward (movement in space). The angle of the cone represents the speed of light – the distance in space (horizontal) it can cross in a given time (vertical). Most importantly, light cannot reach any area outside the light cone, because doing so would involve a flatter angle – more horizontal movement (in space) for the same vertical movement (passage of time), which is to say a speed higher than light speed.

In reality, of course, stars emit light in three dimensions; real light cones are four-dimensional and hence quite difficult to visualise. The main point is that any localised event has a future light cone – a region of spacetime which it’s physically possible for information from that event to reach – and a vast region outside that light cone: all the places that light (or radio waves, or by extension any form of information) cannot reach, or rather cannot reach yet. Equally, any point in spacetime (such as the one you’re at now) has a past light cone – a region of spacetime from which it’s physically possible for information to have reached an observer at that point. Anything outside your past light cone can never have had any effect on you. If Mark and Q had been equipped with high-powered radio transmitters, the Good News might have travelled getting on for 2,000 light years by now; that’s quite a long way, but our galaxy is 100,000 light years wide.

Suppose that, a thousand years from now, radio broadcasts from Earth reach a solar system a thousand light years away, one of whose planets supports multi-cellular life. Suppose that an intelligent (and religiously-inclined) species had existed on that planet, but had destroyed itself a couple of centuries earlier, dying unsaved in their millions for want of the Good News. Now multiply out by all that time and all that space. Even if only a tiny proportion of life-sustaining planets harbour intelligent life, the likely numbers of alien civilisations that exist, have existed or will exist somewhere in those 4 x 10^32 cubic light years within the lifespan of the universe are – there’s no other word for it – astronomical. And, given light speed as a hard limit, the proportion of all alien civilisations that can ever be reached by the Good News is astronomically tiny. There will be an awful lot of catching up to do at the end of days; the Harrowing of Hell starts to look a bit parochial.

Not only that, there’s been plenty of time for a star to halt over a stable somewhere else, before we came along – even before Earth came along – and plenty of places where it could have happened. The believing Christian (whose persona I’m borrowing for a lot of this post) would shrug this off: we know it could have happened like that, but we also know it didn’t, because it happened right here, in Bethlehem. But what if we can’t be so sure?

5. You’ll remember Mercury.

As Gary Gutting (via Ken) says, one solution to the problem of evil – the question of why an omnipotent and benevolent God permits pointless suffering – is an appeal to our own ignorance. God, on this argument, is not only all-powerful but all-knowing; our knowledge is imperfect and incomplete, so it may well be that events which make no sense to us have their place in a divine plan. Or, in a stronger version of the same point: we know our knowledge is imperfect, while God’s is perfect; as such we know that we cannot know the mind of God, cannot understand the divine plan. Seeing suffering as incomprehensible, on this argument, is a sign of our humanity; we should not aspire to understand tragic events better, only to be reconciled with them through prayer.

The Harrowing of Hell fits neatly into this framework, despite the sufferings involved being mythical. Being born in the time and place that he was, Moses had no way of knowing the true nature of God; he and all his followers lived all their lives without ever having a full revelation of the divine, and consequently died without being saved and went to Hell. This is an unpalatable thought: surely no benevolent and all-powerful God would condemn the Fathers of the Church to the torments of the damned, even temporarily. (I say ‘temporarily’ – after the first couple of centuries I imagine it wouldn’t feel very temporary.) They would effectively be condemned for being born in the wrong time and place – and, what’s worse, for being born in the precise time and place where they needed to be born in order to lay the groundwork for Christ’s coming and hence fulfil the divine plan. Moses, in short, copped a millennium of Hell for doing everything right.

We can understand this – or rather understand our failure to understand it – by invoking God’s superior (perfect) knowledge: there are things in the divine plan that we don’t understand and never can understand, and presumably this is one of them. (If you think this sceptical argument is unpalatable, incidentally, you’re not alone. From a believer’s point of view it’s very unsatisfactory, not least because it opens up the possibility that the nature of God is unknowable and may be entirely different from what we believe it to be. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the argument was formulated by somebody – David Hume – who was at most a theist. On the other hand, it’s the closest thing I know to a good answer to the problem of evil.)

Now bring all that space and time back in. If a tiny fraction of the planets orbiting other stars have produced or will produce intelligent life, that will amount to millions of alien races – the vast majority of which will realistically never get to hear about Bethlehem, not least because most of them are, were or will be physically incapable of doing so (light cones again). To begin with we can trot out the same response – yes, it seems a bit rough, but there you go, all part of the plan, nobody said the plan would be comprehensible, and so on. But then it gets worse. Think of all those hypothetical intelligent alien races, whether past, future or outside both our light cones. Presumably they have some conception of the divine or numinous – it’d be a sod to convert them to Christianity otherwise – and presumably they’ve made some sort of fumbling semi-contact with the divine and had some sort of glimmers of revelation. (Somebody spoke to Moses in that bush; he still went to Hell.)

Now the trap shuts: how do we know that our revelation was the real and complete one, the one that’s true for all time and all space? The sceptic answers: we don’t know and we can’t know. If we believe in Christ as the incarnate son of God, we’re committed to believing that untold millions of people – and other intelligent beings – lived or will live without any possibility of a true and complete apprehension of the divine. This may seem a bit tough, but our knowledge is imperfect, so we have to trust that it’s all in God’s plan. If we are serious about our belief in the imperfection of human knowledge, however, we have to concede that the Christian’s belief in Christ as the incarnate son of God may not be a true and complete apprehension of the divine. God’s true revelation may have taken place three billion years ago, on a planet orbiting a star in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud; the good Good News may not reach our area until the sun’s a red giant. Christians, as much as Jews or Buddhists, may only ever get a glimmer or half a glimmer of the divine – and this too may be part of God’s plan.

6. “God is dead,” Nick said. “They found his carcass in 2019.”

Still with me? Brace yourself; this is where things get strange.

Hume’s argument from imperfect knowledge has been answered by an appeal to a different kind of knowledge. Human reason may be imperfect, this argument runs, but there’s no gainsaying human experience:

There are two ways to learn that something is possible. One way is to form a clear conception of the possibility. The second way is to discover that the thing is an actual fact. For example, I know that it is possible for bumblebees to fly because I have observed them actually flying. I can know that bumblebees actually fly without first having proved to myself, independently, that it is really possible for them to fly

Similarly, the Christian knows that it is possible for God to communicate with her because she knows it has happened. By happy extension, she also knows that it is possible for the God whose nature we know to communicate with her, and hence that God’s nature is the nature we know. Collapse of stout sceptic.

There are two ways to answer this argument. The short answer – and, I think, the one Hume would have used – is that the argument assumes its own conclusion. What our Christian knows is that she has had a certain experience; when she sets about understanding that experience she’s necessarily thrown back on her own knowledge and reason (including her knowledge of the Christian religion), and we’re back to square one.

Gutting offers a longer (and stranger) answer.

Their confidence in salvation, [believers] say, comes not from philosophical arguments but from their personal contact with God, either through individual experience or a religious tradition. But what can such contact provide concretely? At best, certainty that there is a very powerful being who promises to save us. But there may well be — and many religions insist that there are — very powerful beings (demons or devils) intent on leading us away from salvation. How could we possibly know that the power we are in contact with is not deceiving us?

The inevitable response is that an all-good God would not permit such a thing. But that takes us back to the previous difficulty: there is no reason to think that we are good judges of what God is likely to permit. God may have to allow us to be deceived to prevent even greater evils.

Got that? Direct, immediate experience of contact with God might turn out to be a quite genuine experience of contact with something else. This is a monstrous possibility (literally), but remember, our human knowledge is imperfect; and if our knowledge is imperfect, then God’s plans are unknowable. And, if God’s plans are unknowable, He may make it possible for demonic entities to exist, and for people to make contact with them while believing they’re in touch with God. It’s a bit like the (apocryphal?) preaching of Buddha that Brahma wasn’t the creator of the universe, but a misguided spirit who had come to believe that he was the creator of the universe. Indeed, given that God has all of time and space to work His purpose out, He may make it possible for entire civilisations to gain their only experience of the divine from contact with demonic entities – which would condemn those civilisations to damnation even at their highest levels of religious exaltation. And, if God’s plans are truly unknowable – and what other kind of ‘unknowable’ is there? – we can’t know that our civilisation isn’t one of them. Pulling back out to the cosmic scale, we can’t know that our entire planet – what the hell, our entire galaxy – isn’t doomed to this kind of counterfeit revelation. We can trust that things will be sorted out at the end of days – assuming that at least we’ve got that right – but the God who does the sorting may not be what we expect at all.

We can put the same argument in slightly less alarming terms – and beat a retreat to the short answer – if we say, more simply, that many people through the ages have experienced what they thought to be direct contact with God and been mistaken about the nature of the experience, to put it no more strongly than that. As sceptics, we can accept that God may exist and genuine contact with Him may be possible, while leaving open the possibility that everyone who has ever believed they have made contact was suffering from enthusiasm. We can doubt, if we feel like it, that contact ever will be made from Earth, or from any other planet out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy. (I say “the Galaxy”; obviously I mean this galaxy.)

7. Against principalities, against powers

As I said earlier on, the Humean sceptical argument is unpalatable to believers. I think bringing in deep space and deep time has made it clear just how unpalatable it is. Whether the alternative to a true revelation is the machinations of powers in the air or simple human delusion, the result is much the same. The believer would be committed to holding two mutually antagonistic beliefs simultaneously:

  1. I believe in God: an omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe, loves His creation, makes Himself known to believers and will grant salvation to them.
  2. I am human, and consequently acknowledge that God’s nature may not be as I believe it to be, God may not have truly made Himself known to me and may never do so, the tenets of my religion may have no connection with God’s true purpose and my faith may not save me from eternal damnation.
  3. But GOTO 1.

So where is all this going? The point is simply this: the version of Christian belief we’ve just ended up with is monstrous and untenable. Hume’s scepticism leaves open the possibility of genuine revelation, genuine contact with the divine, but at the cost of introducing radical uncertainty as to whether any given experience of the divine is that genuine contact – and by extension whether any known experience of the divine has ever been genuine. In the Humean view, it’s entirely possible that nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian has ever had a genuine contact with the Christian God, or ever will. Not only is it possible, it’s entirely compatible with belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God, working His purposes out as year succeeds to year. And yet nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian could believe that: it would undermine everything they believe.

So where does religion go if we take this argument seriously? I don’t believe that it disposes of religion altogether, although it does make things a bit difficult for certain kinds of religious belief (and not only Christian belief). One possibility is that the divine retreats to a kind of abstract realm of unknowability. God may or may not exist; this or that revelation of the divine may or may not have been valid. Whatever the answer is, though, it can never be proved and will never affect us either way. Hume himself leant towards this position; at one stage he described the argument between theism and atheism as a purely verbal disagreement, or as we’d say a difference that makes no difference. This way of thinking about religion clearly doesn’t include an eschatology – even Hume could hardly miss the Last Trump; more broadly, it tends to erode religion’s purchase on the present-day social world, reducing the numinous to an aesthetic experience and differences of belief to philosophical debating points. In practical terms this may be no bad thing, but it’s a substantial scaling-down of the claims of religion.

Another answer, which I think is more interesting, gives scepticism the field and then goes somewhere different. But first, another hymn.

8. Everywhere all the time

Every star shall sing a carol,
Every creature high or low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven
By whatever name you know.

God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

When the king of all creation,
Had a cradle on the earth.
Holy was the human body,
Holy was the human birth.

Who can tell what other cradle
High above the Milky Way
Still may rock the King of Heaven,
On another Christmas day?

Who can count how many crosses
Still to come or long ago.
Crucify the King of Heaven?
Holy is the name I know.

Who can tell what other body
He will hallow for his own?
I will praise the son of Mary,
Brother of my blood and bone.

Every star and every planet,
Every creature high and low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven,
By whatever name you know.

God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

“Every star shall sing a carol” (1961) by the great Sydney Carter. Cards on the table, I’m not a Christian, but I think that’s absolutely brilliant – and it points to a different way of dealing with Humean scepticism. The problem that deep time and space poses for believers is the same problem that was originally patched up by the Harrowing of Hell, and it’s the problem of singularity. (The state of being singular, that is. Nothing to do with that singularity.) If there is one true revelation of the divine, what becomes of all those people who could only have a glimmer or a distorted half-revelation? And – the Humean adds – how can we know that we aren’t among them?

Carter’s answer is to reject the premise of singularity. (I don’t know if Carter read much science fiction; you could see this hymn as a riposte to C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, in which the inhabitants of Venus say how privileged Earth was to be the planet Jesus chose.) This hymn – and, from what I know of it, Carter’s own religious faith – points us to a world in which Moses wasn’t damned in the first place, and a universe in which there are many different revelations of the divine. Some of them are false, predictably, but many of them are true – equally true, and true in different ways. Encounters with the numinous then cease to take their bearings from one true revelation, and simply become something that happens to people – and would happen to other intelligent species.

Consistently with this idea of multiple revelations, you could see religious observances in all their variety as just something that people do – or rather, something that societies do, and quite possibly something that the societies formed by other intelligent species would also do. Religions would then be different ways of attending to the numinous things in life, different ways of adopting a reverent attitude to phenomena that deserve reverence (birth, death, community, that kind of thing). As for the experience of the divine, perhaps that could be situated at the end of the process rather than its source: not the phenomenon to which reverence needs to be paid, but an emergent property of the practice of reverence.

9. Sweetness follows

A couple of things follow from this way of looking at religion. Four, to be precise.

Firstly, (almost) all religions are (more or less) equal. If you believe that you should do this when somebody’s born, this when somebody dies and this at regular intervals (weekly, monthly, annual, whatever); if you can look around you, at least occasionally, and see other people who believe the same; and if you believe that those commitments are involved with your relationship with something immaterial or intangible; then the chances are you’re doing religion, practising reverence to things that deserve it.

Secondly, religion is a shared practice of life. Religions may start with a single enthusiast (somebody like George Fox), but they only take root in groups – people who do things together. They grow through groups, as well, or at least recruit through affinity networks. Show me a religion that recruits by ones and twos and I’ll show you a religion that’s either very new, struggling to survive or both. Raymond Williams defined – or insisted on defining – ‘culture’ as a ‘whole way of life’. Religion has something of that quality: it’s part of how people do what they do, together. And, I think, the quality of religious experience comes out of that common practice, rather than being something that existed prior to it and which it was constructed around. Insisting that the religious experience takes priority over the common practice can have some odd results. My mother was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant group with strict ideas about most things but not much internal hierarchy. At their communion services, the Brethren would break and share actual bread rather than the wafers they use in the Church of England, this being what the Disciples had done at the Last Supper (“this do in remembrance of me”, remember). According to my mother, one member of their ‘Meeting’ argued that modern English bread was just as inauthentic as the wafers, and that they should be using unleavened bread. He lost the argument, but no matter; from then on he brought along his own supply of unleavened bread, wrapped up in greaseproof paper, and communed with himself.

Thirdly, religion happens (or doesn’t) in the life you’re living. Pace Robyn Hitchcock, it does matter what you was – what you is is what you are, but what you was is how you got here – how you came to be what you is. Are. We think of conversion experiences as wiping previous religious (or non-religious) commitments completely, like a wave coming in and washing away the scribbles on the sand, and I dare say it would feel like that, to begin with at least. Personally I’m a kind of not-quite atheist agnostic, which is a bit of an uncomfortable, liminal position – you could say I’m the kind of person who doesn’t actually believe in anything but doesn’t want to commit to not believing in anything. If I converted to Catholicism tomorrow I can imagine the tide of faith coming in like a comfort blanket. But there are habits of thought I’ve acquired over the years, not to say habits full stop, which would be very hard to shed – and that includes habits which go back to my rather distant upbringing as an Anglican. Like people who settle in rural villages and find themselves referred to as newcomers twenty years later, I’d be a Catholic convert for a long time before I was simply a Catholic. Even then I’d be an ex-Anglican, formerly-atheist Catholic. And that’s a belief system not very far from the one I grew up in; becoming a Buddhist would be the work of a lifetime.

Religion is a big commitment: it takes people sharing ways of living for it to happen; it takes time and patience to make it a reality in your life. Anything short of that is just playing at it. People play at religion a fair bit, if you look around; a lot of what people ostensibly believe in most strongly seems to be awfully dilettante and and-a-pony-ish. The stall at a local church fund-raiser selling prayer flags – how would that work? The woman we saw at a stone circle in Cornwall, staggering and holding her head from the sheer power of the vibrations – didn’t it seem at all odd to her that nobody else could feel a thing? (Then again, as Ben Goldacre points out, electrosensitivity has real and often distressing symptoms; megalithosensitivity may be something similar.)

On the other hand, grumpy sceptical reactions like that often suggest something being disavowed or studiously ignored. I think what’s nagging at me in this case is that (fourthly) playing is really important. Play starts in the ‘potential space’ that infants first start to explore under their parent’s gaze, and it goes on for as long as you’re making new discoveries, learning how to do things, making other people laugh or just messing about with ideas. Play is exploratory; playing is a way of finding new meanings, new connections, new ways to act or live. Playing with religion as such may not be a great idea, if only because it puts the idea of a religion ahead of the practices that make it happen. (Think of that Plymouth Brother with his flatbreads in greaseproof paper; a less earnest approach would, if anything, have cut him off from the rest of the Meeting even more completely.) What does make sense is the idea of playing with shared practices of life – playing with ways (finding new ways) to offer reverence to things, events, experiences that deserve it. And that’s where, at its best, art comes in. Art and religion are quite closely related, in this way of thinking. Art is a way of playing with images, symbols, practices; a way of directing a concentrated, reverent attention to everyday social life; and a way of bringing out the unnoticed meanings of the lives we’ve been living.

10. The marvellous revealed

I’m convinced that Jeremy Deller is a genius. In 2006 he co-curated the Folk Archive, the catalogue of which is now available online as a kind of virtual exhibit. I didn’t see the real-world show, but the virtual gallery is quite wonderful. Head over there now, I’ll just put some music on until you get back.

The Folk Archive

You back? Great. (Good, isn’t it?)

In 2009 Deller organised Procession, a work which I still haven’t made my mind up about – by which I mean that I’m still not sure what it was. It was an artwork in the form of a procession; it was a tribute to the social practice of holding processions; it was a satirical comment on past processions; it was a sincere attempt to envisage a procession for contemporary Manchester; it was all the above. It was a really good procession, in any case. It was led by a Boy Scout band (playing “Hit the North”); bringing up the rear came a float carrying a steel band (playing “Love will tear us apart” – and if you haven’t heard “Love will tear us apart” played by a steel band at the tail of a procession, you’ll have to imagine how good it sounded). In between there were Ramblers, goths, a celebration of fish and chips, a series of hearses carrying floral tributes to defunct Mancunian nightclubs, a group of Unrepentant Smokers… and, as they say, much more. Each group had an embroidered banner in the old style – I worried to begin with that the cumulative effect would make the banners look arch and silly, but they were such magnificent pieces of work that they simply gave greater dignity and impact to the procession, as banners always have done. It was one of those works that look rather weightlessly ironic on paper, but in reality turn out to be powerful and genuine: it was called Procession, and it was a procession. The silliest element was supplied by reality. As well as their own, the Unrepentant Smokers carried a small additional banner with a health warning. I assumed this was a satirical reference to the elf-n-safety hoops that march organisers have to jump through these days, but it turned out that there was no satire about it: the City Council wouldn’t allow them to march unless they carried it.

And did I mention, lots of people came and watched. We all stood, lining the street, and we watched the procession go by. It was great.

It brought people together; it created strange and unexpected moments of beauty; it celebrated the lives people were and had been living. I’m not saying Procession was a religious work, but I do think that what remains of religion – if you forget about looking back to a singular revelation and looking forward to the end of history – has very similar qualities.

As, in its own way, did Sacrilege. One of the starting-points of this post (if something the length of an academic paper still qualifies as a ‘post’) was my perversely-maintained conviction that playing on a life-size bouncy-castle Stonehenge, set up on a recreation ground in Preston, is actually more ritually appropriate – more real – than holding a Druid ceremony at the real Stonehenge. That’s not an entirely serious point – I’ve done one and not the other, apart from anything else – but I think I can make a case for Sacrilege, and one which relates partly to its fairly ostentatious inauthenticity.

Stonehenge, if it’s anything, is singular: we all recognise it, and we don’t know anything else like it. (In point of fact, I’m not sure there’s any other stone circle like it anywhere; those triliths are extraordinary.) This singularity is accentuated by Stonehenge’s close association with Midsummer: not only is there only one Stonehenge, there’s only one time to go there. Stonehenge also tugs us back to a distant past that we know little or nothing about. About the people who originally used Stonehenge, Nigel Tufnel was right: Nobody knows who they were… or what they were doing. Any attempt to recreate the ritual significance of Stonehenge now has to be fairly speculative and voluntaristic; contemporary Druid practice springs out of a prior commitment to a certain kind of religious experience, rather than the experience emerging from a practice and the practice growing out of a shared life experience. They’re playing at it, in other words – and playing seriously, rigidly, adhering to rules they believe were revealed to them and shutting out all non-believers.

Compare Sacrilege. Nothing singular about it: it was set up and taken down in a whole variety of places all around the country. It’s not about the distant past; it takes the very contemporary form of a bouncy castle (so contemporary that I’m too old ever to have been on one before, although for some people reading this they were probably a childhood memory). It’s not about playing by the rules and restricting participation to an elect of believers; it’s about admission for all, and it’s about playing. It’s also – and this is the genius of the work – unavoidably about the numinosity of Stonehenge itself. Play in such a setting inevitably takes on ritual aspects: I set myself to run around the inside of the outer circle touching all the ‘uprights’ once, then do the same around the outside of the inner circle, and by the end I felt I’d done something. (I also felt extremely out of breath. How do kids do it?) Play takes on ritual aspects, and then it sheds them again; I’ve got vivid memories of leaning back against a gently yielding monolith, squeezing between the uprights of a trilith, dropping to a kneeling bounce on the turf, then rolling over and watching the world bounce past… None of this meant anything – it didn’t derive significance from any kind of liturgy – but at the same time it meant a lot. It reminded us of the grandeur and beauty of the stones themselves, and evoked all the rather cliched images of mythic power that they’re linked with. At the same time it drew on the history of non-reverence towards the ancient stones and the contemporary rationality which disregards them, which it at once restated (there’s nothing very reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge) and playfully subverted (there is something irreducibly reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge – and there’s nothing very rational about bouncing, come to that).

The sheer playful excess of the work, combined with the sheer symbolic excess, produced something hilariously enjoyable and powerfully beautiful. As such, what Sacrilege did was something nearly, but not quite, religious; something much closer to Sydney Carter’s idea of religious experience than to traditional versions; and something it shared with Deller’s other work. Sacrilege doesn’t say “the ancients had Stonehenge; we have nothing but bouncy castles; woe is us”. It says “they used to have Stonehenge; we have bouncy castles; what now?” In just the same way, Acid Brass said “they used to have brass bands, we have acid house”, while Procession said “they used to have Whit Walks and Wakes Weeks, we have goths, outdoor smokers and a closed Haçienda”. (I’m very glad that Sacrilege hit Preston in the week of the 2012 Guild, incidentally; if it was a coincidence it was a remarkably good one.) Each time, the work doesn’t assert that this is the contemporary equivalent of that; instead, it brings out the elements of play and celebration in both, then asks, is this the contemporary equivalent? Is this where our contemporary rituals of sense-making take place, where we honour the numinous things in life? Is this where our traditions are being laid down? If so, what do they look like and feel like – how do they honour the numinous and strike sparks off the everyday? And are there any precautions we should be taking?

11. Careful now

Title credits: Trad., Nigel Tufnel, Christina Rossetti, Trad., Lewis Hensley, Edwin Morgan, Philip K. Dick, St Paul, Russell Hoban, Michael Stipe, Peter Blegvad, Dougal McGuire.

You are the fairest creature

Listen, if you can (the audio may be taken down before long), to this. It’s one of those traditional tunes that seem to do everything that a tune can or should do, twining around the scale like ivy and resolving back where it started. It’s a particularly fine rendition by Jon Boden, with a harsh, keening fiddle accompaniment (played by Jon) which perfectly accentuates the darker notes of the song. I think it might be the best thing Jon’s done all year.

If it has been taken down, have a listen to this:

That is a beautiful song.

Now listen to this:
Scritti Politti, “Hegemony”
There’s no getting away from it – at some level that’s the same song. (And yes, Googling establishes that Green Gartside was a folkie in his youth, and specifically a huge Martin Carthy fan. There’s a small puzzle here, though, which is that Carthy didn’t record the song until 1980, after Scritti Politti had recorded “Hegemony”. He did sing it as part of the score of the theatrical version of “Lark Rise to Candleford”, which was staged at the National Theatre in 1978 and 1979; perhaps Green was in the audience. Either that, or he heard Peter Bellamy’s version, released in 1975.)

I’m slightly staggered by this. Picture a fan of cutting-edge contemporary art who turns his back on the edgy echo-chamber of conceptual this and reinterpreted that, and rediscovers craft – good stuff well made. And imagine that, a few years down the line, he’s appreciating a particularly well-made pot, when he realises that it’s a Grayson bloody Perry. That’s me that is. Here’s a song which does what folk songs do, and does it so well – a slow, deliberate melody; lyrics that say one or two simple things, but simple things that have stayed true; a spare, delicate arrangement. No anxiety, no uncertainty, no rough edges, no contemporary resonance that wasn’t equally resonant 200 years ago. And here’s a song which is pure punk (intellectual wing): it’s all uncertainty and rough edges, an urgent, gabbled bulletin from the front line of one man’s confrontation with the world that faces him. And it’s the same bloody song.

As it happens, although I was vaguely into folk in the 70s – and I did see “Lark Rise” – I never really heard that much of it: Steeleye, Pentangle and, er… By 1979 I had given up on it altogether, partly in reaction against Steeleye’s new direction but mainly because the cultural earthquake of punk had seemed to make it utterly irrelevant. So I never heard “Sweet Lemany” until after I’d got back into folk, 30 years later, in search of the well-made pots of the tradition. Even then I only heard it at singarounds; it was only when I heard Jon Boden’s version last week that I really listened to it. And suddenly I’m back with Green in 1979, agonising over the production of meaning and semantic instability in ‘beat’ music in that legendary Camden squat, and I’m in my room at Cambridge poring over the sleevenotes and feeling his sense of the utter necessity of intellectual work and his despair at the isolation it brings with it -

About the university the pages let you down
It helps you find your way around in any English town
About the university the pages are in French
It helps you find your way around in any English town

And then I’m not.

As I was a-walking one fine summer’s morning,
Oh he fields and the meadows they looked so green and gay;
And the birds were singing so pleasantly adorning,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

Hark, oh hark, how the nightingale is singing,
And the lark she is a-taking her flight all in the air.
On yonder green bower the turtle doves are building,
The sun is just a-glimmering, Arise my dear.

Arise, oh, arise and get your charming posies,
They are the fairest flowers that grow in yonder grove.
I will pluck off them all sweet lilies, pinks and rosies,
All for my Sweet Lemeney, the girl that I love.

Oh, Lemeney, oh, Lemeney, you are the fairest creature,
Yes, you are the fairest creature that ever my eyes did see.
And she played it all over all upon her pipes of ivory,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

How could my true love, how could she vanish from me
Oh, how could she go so I never shall see her more.
Well it was her cruel parents who looked so slightly on me,
And it’s all for the white robe that I once used to wear.

In retrospect there’s something nightmarish about the political life lived with the kind of intensity that Green appeared to advocate back then. Certainly there’s a nightmarish quality, rather than a hopeful or liberating one, about the idea that everything could and should be transformed, from the conventions of pop songwriting to the living conditions of the band – after all, what if you forgot something, or allowed your guard to slip, and the old world crept back in? (“And ‘common sense’ is things just as they are”.) But if you get to the point where everything is a problem, the problem that you need to deal with is all yours. Green has dismissed the recordings of this period as “some anti-produced labour of negativity, kind of structurally unsound and exposed, by design and default … evocative of extraordinary times and a bit winceworthy”. For all that he’s the artist, that seems more like a list of symptoms than a description of the condition. I think something like “Hegemony” is best seen as the product of an attempt to fuse three things – the music, the politics, the personal sense of urgency and wrongness – which didn’t really belong together and certainly didn’t fit together. It struck some extraordinary sparks – thirty years on I still know “Hegemony” word for word, which is saying something given that I’m not even sure what all the words are – but it couldn’t ever work. The trouble was, the fact that it didn’t work chimed with the personal sense of the world’s wrongness, which was validated by the politics, and round the process went again.

I remember reading an interview with Jackie Leven, in about 1980, in which he talked about having worked his way to a place where he’d regained his innocence – “waking up a virgin the morning after the gang-bang” was his image. Green recovered his psychic virginity by journeying into shiny manicured pop – a long way from the anxiously self-deconstructing racket of “Hegemony”, and a long way from “Sweet Lemoney” too. As for me, Scritti Politti’s first few releases meant a huge amount to me at the time, and an important time it was too – Green was a lasting intellectual influence on me, just before Raymond Williams and a couple of years ahead of Guy Debord. So it’s interesting – and somehow at once chastening and heartening – to think how much of the power of those songs came from the music; and how much of the music, in this case, came from a song that had nothing to do with the manufacture of consensus and a lot to do with love and flowers.

“Hegemony” is still strange, powerful and unsettling; some of the songs Green wrote a couple of years later, on the cusp of his rediscovery of pop, are amazing (“The ‘Sweetest Girl'”, “Lions after slumber”, “Jacques Derrida”). But I’m going to stick with Limandie, playing on her pipes of ivory at the break of day. For all the tradition-garbled pastoral imagery, that song’s still about something true – and it’s something much more livable-with than “Hegemony”‘s anguished protest at the impossibility of changing everything immediately. The old songs endure, with their strangely elaborate melodies, their stock of familiar images and their tiny repertoire of subjects – love, sex, babies, death. They’re songs to remember.

Then take up the strain

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.
– Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

There’s an old Chinese story about an acolyte who asks his teacher what he should do (to achieve enlightenment, or with his life, or that day, it doesn’t really matter). Sweep the path, says the teacher. He sweeps the path for an hour. The teacher takes one look at it and slaps his face. It’s not clean! He sweeps the path for two hours. He goes down on hands and knees and picks off every last speck of dirt. He tells the teacher he’s finished. The teacher takes one look at the path and slaps him again. It’s not clean! Not knowing what else to do, he sweeps the perfectly clean path for the rest of the day. As the sun sets the teacher comes out of his cell, looks at the path and slaps him once more: It’s not clean! Despairing, the acolyte pleads with the teacher to tell him how he can possibly make the path any cleaner than it is. The teacher takes a handful of rose petals and scatters them on the path. Now it’s clean.

Here’s a song by the Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers (starts at about 1:40, but the first part of the clip is worth watching).

You can read the lyrics here. The chorus goes like this:

Rise again! Rise again!
That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men
Those who loved her best and were with her till the end
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

I last heard that song at a singaround last week. Continue reading

When the winds begin to sing

Winter ade!

I went to a graduation ceremony at the University of Manchester yesterday. I’ve worked there for most of the last six years, so I’d taught a lot of yesterday’s graduands in all three years; it was good to see them make it to the end.

I’ve been to the last couple of graduations, but this will almost certainly be my last; I started work at another university at the beginning of February. For most of the previous three years I’d been working as what my new employer calls an hourly-paid lecturer. (Manchester, less grandly and less descriptively, calls the post “Teaching Assistant”.) This is not a great position to be in, particularly over summer. Summer 2009 was particularly difficult, and the start of the new academic year wasn’t much better. (It’s no coincidence that this blog was dormant for most of the calendar year 2009, or that I’ve been posting a lot more since February.) My current job was the right opportunity at the right time.

So yesterday’s ceremony roused some very mixed emotions. Leaving Manchester was a wrench, but it was the right thing to do and I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I left Manchester and it was the right thing to do, but it was a wrench. I’ve got the Anselm Kiefer picture at the top of this post on my desk at work (literally on my desk – I must invest in a mount or at least some sellotape). The verse handwritten across it is adapted from a German folk song; it reads

Winter ade,
scheiden tut weh,
doch dein Scheiden macht
daß mein Herze lacht…
gerne vergeß ich dein,
kannst immer ferne sein
Winter ade,
scheiden tut weh.

Which means something like this:

Goodbye Winter
Leaving hurts
But your leaving makes my heart laugh
Gladly I forget your leaving
May you always be far from me
Goodbye Winter
Leaving hurts

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday

In the last post I revisited the series of posts I wrote before the last election, arguing that Labour supporters should vote for parties to the left of Labour – a category in which I included the Lib Dems. (I voted Green on the day.)

This time round, I’m seriously considering voting Labour. So what’s changed?

There are four things, I think. Continue reading

And I decline

Here’s a late response to the blog theme tune meme, and a tune I can’t believe nobody else has picked:

Maybe it’s just me.

At its most basic, there’s definitely something that appeals to me about songs with far too many words, and songs that nobody understands. At one time in my life Prefab Sprout’s first album meant an enormous amount to me, precisely because some of the songs are so resolutely personal – not in a Kate Nash sense, but in the sense of mapping out a mental landscape which could only ever make sense from the inside (“Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!”). In this song, I like the way the playfulness and sheer high spirits of the music works together with that ridiculous cataract of words (“LEONARD BERNSTEIN!”). And the rueful, headachey conclusion – “Time I had some time alone” (truncated from this video, unfortunately) – I’ve had days like that.

But it goes a bit deeper. The personal is political, and not just in the sense that one will get you to the other. To put it another way, not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are. Someone who likes well-chaired meetings that run to time will join a different party, with different goals, from someone who likes to keep talking until everyone’s agreed – or someone who likes to handle disagreement with his fists. See also the debate that Daniel kicks off from time to time, regarding the association between the political spectrum and the undesirable trait of BACAI (where ‘B’ stands for ‘being’ and ‘AI’ ‘about it’). (The debate hasn’t got very far as yet – we’re more or less agreed that most of the Decent/Euston crowd is positively committed to BACAI, but generalising from that is hard.)

As for me, I’ve always been temperamentally drawn to no-holds-barred abolish-everything ultra-leftism. If you read Debord, or the early Marx – or even if you start reading Capital at volume 1, chapter 1 – it seems staringly obvious that communism is not going to involve capital formation, or commodity production, or wage labour, or money. (Whether it would involve law is a separate question.) Obviously the maximalism that this vision implies can only be theoretical in anything other than a pre-revolutionary situation, but maximalism on the plane of theory isn’t nothing:

If constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
– Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, September 1843

(The original strap line of my old blog was adapted from that quote.)

Or you could just say that I’ve got a weakness for nihilism.

Qu’est-ce que le nihilisme ? Rozanov répond parfaitement à la question quand il écrit : “La représentation est terminée. Le public se lève. Il est temps d’enfiler son manteau et de rentrer à la maison. On se retourne : plus de manteau ni de maison.”

“No more coats, no more home.” It’s possible, I suppose, that Rozanov was talking about nothing more than planting a bomb in a theatre, which has never struck me as a valid political tactic[1]. I’ve always read that passage more metaphorically. It’s the image of everything disappearing at the end of the show that’s stayed with me. Picture it: you’re just emerging from a consensual illusion and returning to reality, when you realise that the reality you thought you were returning to was itself a consensual illusion, and it’s gone. You wake up… and then you wake up.

(Right? Right!)

What this perspective gives you, I think, is a sense of how provisional all our social arrangements are, a sense that everything solid could melt into air[2]. It’s just a ride, in other words, and we can change it any time we want. And that in turn goes together (for me at least) with a kind of ironic optimism: in terms of political programmes there’s nothing out there I can actually identify with, but there are lots of points where closed-down possibilities can be nudged open. And lots of stuff that we don’t actually need to preserve – which brings us back to the song. Clear the floor to dance!

[1] Not everyone agrees with this point, it should be said. Alfredo Bonanno made a pretty good fist of arguing for indiscriminate, spontaneous anarchist violence in his 1979 pamphlet Concerning terrorism, certain imbeciles and other matters. “What if we don’t want to wait for the ‘big day’, and we begin to do something, here and now, to stop defending ourselves and begin to attack power? … What would doing this make us – would it make us terrorists?” Maybe not terrorists as such, but it would certainly make you voluntarist, adventurist, substitutionist, deeply irresponsible and ultimately rather apolitical. To put it another way, it would make you a bunch of dangerous headbangers.

[2] I’ve read that this is a mistranslation deriving from Ernest Jones’s inadequate grasp of German, and that what Marx actually wrote was more like “all fixed reference points go up in smoke”. I don’t know if it’s an improvement or not – the “melts” version is more vivid and poetic, but it has a dreamy, Tempest-like quality which doesn’t really go with historical materialism. More research needed. Have any German-speaking Marxists read this far? (I did say I was an optimist…)

A moment worth waiting for

Eliot Weinberger’s Obama v. Clinton: A Retrospective was clearly written in the heat of (interim) triumph:

Just when you thought [Clinton] had hit bottom, she went even lower. She tried to cast Obama as a scary black man who, as subliminally suggested in her infamous (and mercilessly parodied) ‘3 a.m.’ ad, would break into your house and murder your cute little sleeping blonde daughter. She cast doubt on whether Obama was really a Christian and not a scary Muslim. And when that didn’t work she reinvented herself as a Woman of the People, waxing eloquent on her hunting days with Grandpa and downing shots in working-class bars, as she derided Obama – the son of a single mother on welfare – as an elitist, out of touch with the regular people she’d presumably been hanging out with all these years at Yale Law School, the Arkansas governor’s mansion, the White House and the Senate. Those regular people, she explained in one of many embarrassing moments, were ‘hard-working Americans, white Americans’.

I like ‘one of many’ – shorthand for You think that’s bad? There’s more where that came from – plenty more… Weinberger states and restates his contempt for Clinton in open-handed, effusive prose; he’s generous with his derision. It’s all good fun, if you’re on the same side as Weinberger – at least, if you’re not on one of the sides he’s not on.

On the final night of the relentless presidential primary campaign, Jesse Jackson compared Barack Obama’s victory to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Erica Jong compared Hillary Clinton’s defeat to watching Joan of Arc burning at the stake. Obama was in St Paul, Minnesota, pointedly in the very arena where the Republicans will hold their convention in September … Clinton was off on what has come to be known as the remote island of Hillaryland – in this case several storeys below ground at Baruch College in New York, inaccessible to cell phones or BlackBerries – still insisting that, according to Hillarymath, she had won the popular vote, still declaring that she was ready to be commander-in-chief on ‘Day One’ … And then there was John McCain, in what seemed to be a high school auditorium somewhere in Louisiana (even he wasn’t sure: he thought he was in New Orleans, but he wasn’t), addressing a few hundred sleepy geriatrics

You get the picture: Clinton arrogant and ridiculous, McCain ridiculous and old. And Obama? When it comes to Obama, there’s something rather more complicated going on.

Obama didn’t win because Clinton lost. He was, in American terms, the better candidate. I knew he’d win when I first watched him on television in Iowa, for he has the quality Americans most prize in their presidential candidates: sincerity.

Obama, by all accounts, has remained true to his vision of grassroots organisation and politics through reconciliation; he has yet to be caught holding any contradictory positions. In a country that believes, above all, and largely to its great detriment, in individual self-reliance, he is a self-made man whose message emphasises that progress must also begin at home.

What’s good about Obama wavers in and out of focus here. He’s got a vision of grassroots organisation and politics through reconciliation: a contradictory vision, by the sound of it, as well as one which doesn’t have much to do with the office of President. He’s a self-made man, and as such appeals to a country which believes – to its own great detriment, i.e. incorrectly – in self-reliance. He’s personally sincere, or at least manages to appear sincere, which makes him (in American terms) a good candidate for Head of State.

Perhaps the key to what Weinberger’s saying about Obama is that odd line “he has yet to be caught holding any contradictory positions” (emphasis added). Consistency as a virtue, with the implication that a candidate who doesn’t contradict him- or herself is, perhaps, a candidate with fixed principles: and that in itself is something to be prized, irrespective of what those principles are. This ties in to an oddly lenient passage in one of Weinberger’s many critiques of Clinton:

Believing that it was the only way a woman could be elected, she had built her image as a Thatcher-like Iron Lady, not only supporting the Iraq war, but also identifying with various military and defence issues. Assuming she would be running against the right, never imagining a challenge from the left, Clinton was not prominently identified with any progressive legislation in her six colourless years in the Senate, for fear that it would ultimately be used against her. On the contrary, she largely tried to burnish her credentials as a hardline patriot, even introducing a bill against flag-burning, though there had been only one known incident since the Vietnam War – some drunken frat boys at a party.

Clinton, here, is pure political tactician; if she used her influence as a Senator to the benefit of the militaristic Right, this was because she wanted to avoid anything that could be used against her and to burnish her credentials as a supporter of her enemies’ favourite causes. Weinberger presents all this as a series of self-seeking tactical manoeuvres; if we accept this, Clinton’s great error was not moving Right, but failing to anticipate that moving Right would become a liability.

Anyone who remembers my comments on Davis won’t be surprised to learn that I find this a deeply unsatisfactory way of thinking about politics. Actions have consequences, and in politics symbolic actions can have material consequences: the US political sphere and US society were affected, however infinitesimally, by every right-wing speech Clinton made as a senator and by her every refusal to support progressive legislation. I’m arguing, in a sense, for something like Benjamin’s messianic perspective on history: I’m suggesting that the music stops every so often, and that in those moments we can see who’s done what and judge them on that basis. Or rather, I’m suggesting that we should imagine that the music stops every so often, and that we can hold politicians to account in terms of what they’ve actually done.

Looking at Clinton’s Senate career, we need to think of its effects on the outside world as well as on Clinton’s subsequent electability. Conversely, we shouldn’t let Obama off the hook because he appears to have principles of some sort. Obama should be seen as a politician – someone with the power to make changes, benefiting one group rather than another – as well as a dreamer of dreams (that music eventually stops, too). And Clinton should be seen as someone who has made a difference – mostly for the worse – as well as a mere ladder-climbing politician.

The worst thing you can do with politicians is believe in them: the best of them is much more (and less) than a principled idealist. The second worst is to disbelieve, reducing politics to court intrigue (that’ll embarrass him… how’s she going to get out of this?…). It takes a sincere reactionary to start fires deliberately, but cynical hacks do a lot of playing with matches – and the fire’s just as real.

Not thrones and crowns

A meme from Paulie:

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

The dogmatic certainty that God does not exist, and that His non-existence really matters. Like Paulie, I prefer ‘agnostic’ as a label.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Church of England; I described it here. We were quite big on the story about feeding the hungry and freeing the prisoners, and the one about the woman taken in adultery, and the bit with the money-changers in the Temple. We weren’t particularly bothered about what happens when you die – or even, really, about what happened when Jesus died.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?

Dishonest. (What’s the point of this question? It’d be far more interesting to write a paragraph, or even a sentence.)

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

Anything to do with history, up to and including palaeontology. But science has a lot to offer our understanding of even quite recent periods. Get a load of this, from a recent LRB:

In 1998, Michael Bennett revealed that a badly burned charter in the Cottonian Collection, just readable under ultraviolet light, was a copy of a previously unknown declaration by Edward III of October 1376, strictly limiting the royal succession to his male heirs and their male descent. This declaration was never made public, and it was quite unclear that a king had any right to regulate the succession in this way. If valid, it made John of Gaunt, and Henry after him, heirs to the throne should Richard, the son of Edward’s eldest son, the Black Prince, die childless, and excluded the March line, whose royal blood came through Edward’s granddaughter. The declaration was probably made at Gaunt’s prompting and must have been known to Henry at an early point, and to Richard too.

New discoveries from fourteenth-century manuscripts – that’s exciting.

(The space programme was fantastic, too.)

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

What: its arrogant condescension towards the rest of the world. Why: because it’s not a good way to relate to people. Marxists feel quite certain that they (or rather we) have got the key to human history, but we also believe that everyone else needs to get it for themselves. Freudians feel similarly confident that they (or we) have got the psyche down pat – but, again, we don’t go around pouring scorn on the unanalysed masses. Neither group would dream of claiming that our particular brand of enlightenment had dibs on the word ‘bright’. I’d like to see some humility from atheists – some acknowledgment that it’s possible to learn from people whose mental universes strike you as daft.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

I’d be both disappointed and pleased, which would probably necessitate quite a long conversation. My children are both personally tolerant, politically liberal and intellectually curious; I’ve known clergy who were all three, so let’s assume that, in this scenario, these character traits haven’t changed. But I’d still be disappointed, since I don’t think belief in a personal saviour who forgives sins and guarantees admission to Heaven is particularly healthy. Admittedly, when I was growing up (as I said above) we got along fine in the Church of England without bothering much about that end of things, but I think it’d be hard to pull this off while actually wearing a dogcollar. I’d be pleased, at the same time, because I think that – even taking into account their role in fostering supernaturalist illusions – most clergy do more good than harm. (I’d certainly rather that than they went into advertising.)

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

If I went in for this sort of thing, it’d be the First Cause. I tried to refute it in a rather simple-minded church youth group once, many years ago, using an insanely complex theory which I’d got from Isaac Asimov – there was a singularity before the Big Bang, and then there was also a singularity of anti-matter, and there was a Big Bang in the anti-matter universe too – only it was more complicated than that because there was another singularity… no, right, there was another pair of singularities, that’s right, only when these two singularities had their Big Bangs they were actually going backwards in time… and the thing is, right, before the Big Bang all these singularities cancelled each other out, right, which meant that actually nothingness could turn into four separate singularities at any moment, so like it could be happening all the time…

A much better answer, I think, is we don’t know. We don’t know, but we – collectively, as a species – are trying to find out. Isn’t that exciting? (History again, you see.)

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

As far as capital-A atheists go, see above, QQ1 and 5, and below, Q9. (We Guardian-reading live-and-let-live agnostics don’t really have the kind of orthodoxy this question implies.)

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

None of the above. Both Dawkins and Dennett would be good on their own territory, if only they’d stick to it. I went off Dawkins when I first read about memes, which is some time ago now. Dennett these days is quite openly an evangelist, and I don’t trust evangelists. Hitchens has very little to offer in this area; I haven’t seen much by Sam Harris, but what I have seen suggests that he’s a twit. The only self-proclaimed atheist writer I’ve got any time for is Philip Pullman; he takes religion seriously as part of real, intellligent people’s lives.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Ian Paisley, just to see what would happen. But I don’t believe in persuading people to abandon their beliefs – for atheism as for Marx or Freud, people need to see that it works when you use it and then realise that it would work for them. Or not – it’s up to them.

And I tag… you, dear (presumptively atheist) reader. Or not – it’s up to you.

Hang up your net, child

It struck me the other day, after seeing Robyn Hitchcock on Later, that I don’t go out much these days. I was never a really frequent gig-goer, but for many years there were a few people I’d invariably see if they came to Manchester. Robyn was the longest resident in that category; I first saw him in 1980, playing with the Soft Boys at the Great Northern in Cambridge. (The runner-up, for what it’s worth, is Julian Cope – although the first time I saw him was only 20 years ago, at the Haçienda (of all places) in 1987.) More recently there were the Beta Band and GYBE!; more recently still, the Earlies and James Yorkston. I’m older than I was and more hard-up than I have been, but I suspect a lot of it’s down to the general anhedonia of the last couple of years, since my mother died.

Whatever the reason, lately I’ve got into a real habit of not going to gigs. Bands whose gigs I haven’t been to recently include the Shins (twice), King Creosote (twice) and the Deaf School reunion – as well as Robyn Hitchcock. In his case I did at least have a reasonably good excuse for not going; at the time I hadn’t got round to getting either his last album or the one before. After not going to the gig, I took the opportunity to catch up on what he’s been recording lately. I bought Spooked and Olé Tarantula together and listened to them one after the other. They’re both pretty good, but… meh. Hearing them close together I became aware of a certain flatness, a diluted quality to a lot of the writing. A lot of Robyn Hitchcock’s songs always did sound a bit dashed-off, but they used to sound as if they’d been dashed off after waking from a dream (“Furry green atom bowl”, “Victorian squid”), or else dashed off by being played straight onto tape in a trance of concentration (“Love poisoning”, “The ghost ship”). Some of these songs just sound, well, dashed-off (“Everybody needs love”) – or even jammed (“Belltown ramble”). There’s something untroubled about his music lately; a lot of the time he doesn’t sound as if he’s waiting for inspiration of unknown origin to strike, he just sounds like he’s having fun writing songs and playing music.

That appearance on Later reminded me of those albums and indirectly confirmed this impression. Robyn did one song (he only ever seems to get to do one); it was “Sounds great when you’re dead”, accompanied (as it is on record) by skittering, tightly-controlled acoustic guitar and a manically lush piano part. A very fine performance it was too; thanks to the piano part, it’s not a song he plays very often live, and it was great to see it done (particularly that last chorus – Baby, let me assure you…) Apart from anything else, I really got a sense of what that song’s about, which I never really had done in the previous embarrassingly large number of years.

Your mother is a journalist, your father is a creep
They make it in your bedroom when they think you are asleep
The scenes that they’re enacting there beside your little bed
Are never in your consciousness but always in your head

Baby, it might sound dodgy now
But it sounds great when you’re dead

It’s about screwed-up artists, I reckon: your upbringing may have left you with raw emotional wounds, but those very wounds are going to make a poet of you – and think how good that‘ll make you look in a hundred years’ time! Dark, very dark.

The curious thing was how Robyn looked, singing it. Enunciating each syllable, catching the eye of the camera, underlining significant phrases with a sideways look or a twitch of the eyebrow, he looked like someone who’s got something to say, knows people are listening and feels entirely at ease with this situation. Positively cheerful about it, in fact – he looked like a man who enjoyed his work. His facial expressions were somewhere between an upbeat Ronan Keating and a downbeat Rolf Harris. When you took into account the lyrics he was singing – which are funny in a twisted-grin sort of way, but not at all reassuring – the overall effect was distinctly creepy.

It was also a huge change from how I remember him looking, back when he had dark hair. When I saw him with the Soft Boys or the Egyptians he always looked like he had something to tell us, but his manner was nervous, almost haunted; it was as if he suspected there was something essentially shameful or ludicrous about what he was doing, but thought he could get away with it as long as he kept impressing us. (And the earlier the more so. The fluency and rapidity of the between-song patter on the Portland Arms live album is like a hallucinatory version of Just a minute, especially after they screw up “Have a heart, Betty” (“the Modal Minor, the Flattened Tenth, the Squirrel and the Apex”).) By contrast, the other night on Later he looked… well, happy, basically. I guess relocating to America’s been good for him: certainly he’s got a bigger, more regular and more appreciative audience out there than he ever had here. The lower creative temperature of his last few albums could be related to this higher level of acceptance: to put it bluntly, someone who’s got a sneaking suspicion that what they’re doing is absurd is likely to hold their work to higher standards.

What’s really interesting is that the themes and concerns of his work haven’t changed that much. If you set aside a few lightweight numbers, he’s still writing about death, sex, the absence of God and the passage of time, in language that falls somewhere between surrealist poetry and nonsense verse. (Take Basingstoke. Noel Malcolm’s The Origins of English Nonsense finds references to Basingstoke in nonsense poems from the 1630s and 1660s; reviewing the book in the LRB in 1997, Michael Dobson recalled the use of Basingstoke in Ruddigore and commented on “an uncanny kinship between the nonsense writing of different periods”. It’s not a bad tradition to be in.) A wholly healthy Hitchcock – someone who’d wiped the slate of whatever shame or fear it was that used to hang around his neck; someone who was ‘clear’, as the Scientologists put it – would presumably sing nothing but inconsequential stuff like “Belltown ramble” or “English girl”. He certainly wouldn’t do “Sounds great when you’re dead”.

I wouldn’t dream of psychoanalysing Robyn Hitchcock, not least because I’ve never met him[1]. But the impression he’s giving at the moment is of someone who knows there’s enough half-chewed weirdness in his head to last a lifetime, but is quite happy about it. To be more precise, someone who isn’t positively happy about the weirdness itself, but is quite happy to get on with writing and playing and living, and leave it be until its moment comes. In the words of “Red locust frenzy”,

Don’t let the dragon come
And make it worse for you
Don’t let the demon come
Until you want him to

It’s a wise and sensitive thought, although with unsettling overtones. But it’s that sort of attitude – keeping the weirdness in the attic but granting yourself visiting rights – that would make it possible to find a song like “Sounds great when you’re dead” interesting and amusing, rather than alarming or threatening. It sounds like a pretty good way to be. True, the last couple of albums don’t include many songs that rank alongside “Sounds great when you’re dead” (or “Acid bird”, “Railway shoes”, “Queen Elvis”…) but I don’t think it’s a question of an overall lack of edge. The image of dilution is probably the right one: all things being equal, a happier writer with a more supportive audience will tend to write more songs, finish more songs and let more songs get out. In short, if Olé Tarantula is half the album Eye or Respect was, this may just be a sign that Robyn Hitchcock’s in a much better place now than he was then. The earlier albums are the ones with the music that will sound great when he’s dead – but he’s having more fun with it now. You can’t really grudge him that.

[1] I always think of him as ‘Robyn’ & have had to remind myself not to – since, after all, I don’t actually know the guy. I have been buying his records for basically as long as he’s been making them; and I did once eavesdrop on a conversation in a record shop between him and the owner (I remember he told the shop-owner he’d get the point of the cover of Near the Soft Boys[2]); and I did once play on the same bill as him, albeit much further down[3]. But I’ve never met him.

[2] I’ve no idea what this means – unless it’s a Professor Branestawm reference, which I suppose is just about possible.

[3] Off the bottom, in fact. Long story. Another time.

Working on the sequel

It is fair to recognize the difficulty and the immensity of the tasks of the revolution that wants to create and maintain a classless society. It can begin easily enough wherever autonomous proletarian assemblies, not recognizing any authority outside themselves or the property of anyone whatsoever, placing their will above all laws and specializations, abolish the separation of individual, the commodity economy and the State. But it will only triumph by imposing itself universally, without leaving a patch of territory to any form of alienated society that still exists. There we will see again an Athens or a Florence that reaches to all the corners of the world, a city from which no one will be rejected and which, having brought down all of its enemies, will at last be able to surrender itself joyously to the true divisions and never-ending confrontations of historical life.
Debord

A question about law and communism. (This will be a fairly specialised post, I’ll warn you now.)

The other day I was reading Donald Black’s 1983 paper “Crime as Social Control”. It’s a terrific piece of work, a real complement to the unpacking job done ten or twenty years earlier by writers on the sociology of deviance. Black argues that much of what we see as crime can be understood, ethnographically, as informal means of regulating deviance: many victims of theft, assault and even murder are being punished, in the eyes of the offender, for offences not controlled by the criminal justice system. This doesn’t mean that we should endorse these forms of wild regulation as just; they are quite likely to be unjust in both procedural and distributive (outcome) terms. But to conceive of them as forms of regulation (or ‘social control’ in Black’s preferred terminology) does at least make them more comprehensible – not to mention opening up some interesting questions about legitimate and illegitimate forms of regulation.

So I was nodding along pretty enthusiastically to Black’s paper, but then I was brought up short.

A great deal of the conduct labelled and processed as crime in modern societies resembles the modes of conflict management – described above – that are found in traditional societies which have little or no law (in the sense of governmental social control)

Hold on: “law (in the sense of governmental social control)“? Can that possibly be right?

That’s not the question, although it’s related. The question is: in formal terms, how would communism change the law? Obviously the law would no longer have any call to do certain things; property law would be out of the window for a start, and I imagine that most of the criminal justice system would wither and die in very short order. And no, to the extent that the law represents governmental social control, well, there’d be none of that, for obvious reasons.

But does that dispose of the law? I’m not at all sure that it does.

From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavour to destroy or subdue one another. And from hence it comes to pass that where an invader hath no more to fear than another man’s single power, if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.
Hobbes

I’m not bringing in Hobbes as a knockdown argument against communism – that would just be a more sophisticated version of “but people aren’t like that“, the eternal stupid Tory argument against teenage utopianism (not that I’m still bitter or anything). I do think it’s possible to envisage a world in which nobody spent their time endeavouring to destroy or subdue one another. But what I think Hobbes does put his finger on, almost in passing, is scarcity: even if nobody owns anything, there will still be a book you’re reading that I want to read, an artwork I’ve been given that you would have liked on your wall. Most of the time we’ll be able to sort everything out amicably – probably through some of those interminable meetings that communism is going to be so good for – but at some point there will be differences of perspective that can’t be resolved; at some point there will be conflict.

And what do you want to deal with conflict? What you want, it seems to me, is a book that reminds us how we deal with certain kinds of conflict, and somebody who’s good at reading that kind of book. Obviously it can all be opened up – the role of book-reader can rotate, or be open to whoever wants it, or be open to recall; the book can be updated, if we can agree on an update (and if we can agree on the conditions under which an update is applied, and for that matter on the conditions under which a discussion like this can be halted before we end up in a game of Nomic). Perhaps you don’t even need a reader. But you’ve still got a book that embodies elements of the experience of a community, in the form of statements that the community now defers to. You’ve still got law.

If I try to imagine a community without law, in this strong sense, I can only imagine a community without a past: a community whose life was made up as it went along. It sounds like a nice place to visit, but could you really live there?

Says there’s none

Jamie picks up on a handy new proposal for making use of all those ex-servicemen the Iraq war is eventually going to leave us with:

Ex-servicemen and women should be retrained as teachers to bring military style discipline to tough inner city schools, a think tank has said. The Centre for Policy Studies says ex-soldiers could have a profound effect on discipline and learning.

“This is not merely because ex-servicemen are sure of their own moral authority. They are not intimidated by adrenaline-fuelled adolescents: they have, unlike most teachers, been there before,” it added. It also argued that the perception that these teachers had been in a “macho profession” would be well-received by inner city children. “Whether we like it or not, children from more deprived neighbourhoods often respond to raw physical power,” it added.

Chief of Defence Staff Lord Guthrie said knife crime, drugs and violence were reported daily in the inner cities. … “This will not, of course, solve all the problems of the inner city. But it will help,” he said. “It will provide youths with role models who understand discipline and self-restraint at the time in their lives when they need it most. And it will be a terrific boost for our Armed Services.”

Three different propositions seem to have got jumbled up here: ex-servicemen will help reform the rowdy kids by providing role models who understand discipline and self-restraint; they’ll cow the rowdy kids into submission with their raw physical power; and they’ll lock the place down with their military-style discipline. Presumably number 3 isn’t going to happen – apart from anything else, you don’t need military-style personnel to have military-style discipline, you just need to put someone in authority and give them a free hand. So what we want is role models and raw power – and since they’re not also talking about recruiting monks or doormen, presumably what we want is role models with raw power.

“Look at me, children. Hear the evenness of my voice, watch the precision and economy STOP THAT RIGHT NOW of my movements. Learn from me and you will STOP THAT NOW OR I WILL PERSONALLY RIP YOUR FACE OFF be like me.”

As it happens, when I was eight I had a primary school teacher who used to cane us and shout a lot, often about discipline!. But he wasn’t a former professional soldier, he was just mad. Being eight years old, I just thought this was one of those things – some teachers are nice, some are strict, and some are loud and violent and tell long and complicated stories – but I found out later that the school inspectors had been quite taken aback. They came to the school while I was there, and after they’d gone Mr Thomas didn’t come to teach us any more.

Self-restraint and raw power; discipline and violence. Or, to put it another way, dominance and submission, enforced through the ever-present threat of superior force. It’s a very old form of social organisation (more on that another time) and obviously has a certain atavistic appeal, but it’s hard to see what it’s really good for, anywhere outside the army – which is obviously a special case in terms of what people sign up for. A couple of comments from that BBC story:

Having taught in an exclusion unit in southern England for a number of years, I can attest that many of the exclusions who attended the unit were boys who had suffered violence at the hands of their military fathers who obviously believed that threatening their offspring was the best way to control them. Indeed, whole military families of children were excluded from school. I visited one family of five boys to give home tuition. All were excluded from school for violent and uncontrollable behaviour. Mother was illiterate and sat in on reading lessons. Father tried to maintain discipline with his fists and complained to me that the more he tried to get the boys to behave, the worse they became

Remembering – with fondness – my instructors from Bassingbourn Barracks, they would make mincemeat of the lot of them. But it has to come from within – the army is voluntary, you expect what you will get. School is compulsory…

I remember Mr Price, the headmaster, telling us merrily how Mr Thomas had been taken away by the men in white coats; a bit rich, really, coming from him. And I remember Mr Cook coming to take the class. He was an improvement: he caned us occasionally, but he didn’t shout very much at all and his stories were funnier and made more sense. He always had this slightly harassed air, as if he was trying to live up to something but he wasn’t quite sure what. It must have been quite a tough gig.

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