Archive for April 25th, 2008

What Crack Would Jesus Smoke?

I think it’s always a bad move to criticise someone’s position based on the religious creed they profess to follow. When Tony Blair slabbered about things like ‘the true voices of Islam‘, he was taking it upon himself to decide what the true voices of Islam actually were. And who decides that? If it’s a matter of faith, then my faith is just as true as yours. If someone believes that slamming a plane into a tall building is an authentic expression of Islamic values, as many people do, there are no grounds for arguing that it is not. That is, what constitutes an authentic expression of faith is totally subjective. You could point out that most Muslims don’t approve of this sort of thing at all, but that doesn’t take you any closer to resolving the matter of what is authentically Islamic. Sadly for some, in terms of belief, there is nothing truly Islamic, or truly Christian. All there is is a series of contests, which result in things like Ian Paisley having a go at the Pope at the European parliament.

The Coca-Cola man was saying the other night that to exist as a profitable global entity his company had to develop its products in such a way that they were acceptable to every local culture. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was trying to emulate Jesus, who is the master of glocalisation. Jesus would change his brand identity, depending on where he was. He could express a desire for love, social justice and universal harmony in some places, and in others he could approve of genocide while disapproving of sex before marriage. He could be the ultimate avenger, destined to return in a flaming chariot to flay the non-believers, the Jews, the sodomites and the communists. Or he could demand that getting exploited and starved by your masters was all part of his plan for you to take up his cross. Then he could be simply a regular guy, not too judgmental about stuff in general, but tending to favour a free-market approach to the provision of public services.

In some parts of Northern Ireland, like in the residence of the Bishop of Derry, Jesus disapproves of the current system of academic selection. A short distance away, at Lumen Christi College, which plans to introduce its own form of academic selection to replace the 11-plus, he thinks academic selection is a good idea.

“We find nothing inconsistent with Catholic social teaching in offering academic selection,” he said.

Mr Doherty said parental choice was the main motivation behind the school’s decision. “For us the most important single thing is the primacy of parental choice. Catholic teaching clearly establishes that parents are the prime educators of their children. Parents certainly will most dearly protect the interests of their children and her imposition of a one size fits all model will deny that parental choice,” he said.

Like I said before, you are on a hiding to nothing if you try and argue that those at Lumen Christi are wrong and that in truth Jesus doesn’t want academic selection. The best you can do, when confronted with words like these, is try and see what role Jesus is playing this time.

The way I see it, Jesus is playing the role of free marketeer. In education, as with the provision of all public services under neo-liberalism, the corollary of ‘choice’, as referred to by the principal, is competition. The funny thing here is that ‘parental choice’ is nothing of the sort, since a system of academic selection, by definition, has nothing to do with choice made by parents, but with the choice made by the academy.

Jesus is also laying down the law here on the separation of sheep from goats. Ontologically speaking, there cannot be academic selection without academic rejection, just as a privilege cannot be a privilege if everyone has it (the mealy-mouthed idea of ‘underprivilege’ is fundamentally ludicrous). Protecting the interests of your children via academic selection then, means destroying the interests of other children through academic rejection. Preserving middle-class privilege means maintaining others at a disadvantage. There is, as the lady said, no alternative. And Jesus, this time, agrees.

The Friday Religion Post Volume 957

If only we could transfer all that respect, loyalty and intense devotion from an imaginary being – God – to something real: the wonderful world of goodness we and our ancestors have made, and of which we are now the stewards.

Daniel Dennett.

True, ‘we’, that is, human beings (there any other we? Can one can talk seriously in terms of ‘we the people and the birds and the fish’?), have developed hugely effective sewage systems, highly developed methods of agriculture, anaesthetics, methods of rapid transportation and so on, but these are only good in so far as they address human needs. And the concept of making wonderful things only makes sense if you can wonder at them. But how can you really wonder at things that have been made by humans and are therefore comprehensible in human terms? It might be a source of wonder if we came across a dog who had developed a keen grasp of the essentials of international economics, since that is something we do not expect to dogs do. But humans, like any other species, only do things that they already have the capacity to do.

Do I get a sense that what’s envisioned in Dennett’s phrase is something similar to the shiny happy Christian world of All Things Bright and Beautiful, but with the omnipotent god subtracted? Just as that hymn represents a pleasant world full of nice flowers and the purple headed mountains, but excludes war, famine, pestilence and death, the ‘world of goodness’ blocks out a coeval ‘world of badness’, evidence of which abounds. Furthermore, since Dennett’s ‘world’ is made by humans, he is asking people to treat what humans have made with ‘respect, loyalty and intense devotion’. But isn’t the danger here that the religious worship of one object -the image of an omnipotent god- is substituted for the religious worship of other objects -institutions, political systems, slogans etc? It’s as if Dennett has no problem with forms of behaviour normally classified as religious: he just thinks they should be directed elsewhere. But there are plenty of bad examples of what happens when people become intensely devoted to democracy, or civilization, or other things commonly recognised as motors of progress.

Then there was Robert Winston:

Religion is built into human consciousness and there is plentiful evidence of it being a cohesive force. Apart from the survival of our prehistoric ancestors, in recent times there are powerful examples of how a notion of the transcendental has spurred humans on in desperate situations. Viktor Frankl, in the midst of the extreme deprivation, dehumanisation and despair of Auschwitz observes how, in his assessment, only those with some spirituality – not necessarily a belief in God – survived the depravity of the camp.

The problem I have with this is (apart from the rather dodgy implication that a cohesive force might be a good thing in itself): if he can say that religion is built into human consciousness, then the ability to be aware that religion is built into human consciousness must also be built into human consciousness (he is human, after all). And if this is the case, the religion he describes as being built into human consciousness can’t be religion as we know it (otherwise one could say things, according to the same criteria, such as ‘the sun is built into human consciousness’), leaving one to contemplate if what he is describing is religion at all, in any useful sense of the term.

I have confused myself a bit with the last paragraph. Might need a feed of drink tonight.

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April 2008