Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Good Bits

First day on the job and I could have expected this. My supervisor saw the opportunity to retell the tales every other employee knew by heart. 

“History is fascinating,” he moaned in an affected voice, “You’ll never be bored.”

“That’s what they told me before I signed up. So I became a field officer, part of a team responsible for correctly dating the invention of the wheel. I was specifically responsible for 5238 BN [i]  to 5230 in Northern Africa.

“I should have paid more attention to the unsettled personality of my predecessor. I relieved him quickly and he didn’t mind being rushed on his way. Me, I was just excited to get started.”

The old guy spun on his heel like a dancer and looked straight at me, “Nothing happened. Not a thing for eight years. I took to drawing circles in the sand to see if they got the hint. I heard some woman got the prize eventually.”

“But she was eventually stripped of it after it came out she spent three years rolling round rocks down hills. Now we’ll never know.”

He turned around and resumed walking. I kept pace.

Over his shoulder he continued, “I learnt that actually history is dull, most of it at least. For every fight over a grand ideal there are a hundred thousand spats over what’s on the v.t.[ii] That’s why we came up with The Good Bits, history without all the nothing.”

He came to a door with an actual physical data entry device. Flipping through several keycards on a long chain he found the right one and swiped it in the dusty old reader. He didn’t have to explain The Good Bits to me. The Good Bits was just “everything worth knowing” as the slogan went.

“Your job was once to guard The Good Bits. Those were exciting days. All sorts of hackers and wackers would try and get into its files. It was usually people who wanted to insert histories that they thought were important. Sometimes it was people who thought we got something wrong. It was amazing. You’d go to bed and by morning everything worth knowing would be completely different. Monkeys on the moon. No monkeys on Mars. It was hilarious.”

His voice dropped low theatrically, “And dangerous. Not everyone restricted themselves to cyber attacks. Things got physical. There were bombs.”

In a lighter tone he said “So we instituted The Good Bits version two. Your job is a lot different. You just police glitches in the system now. Meanwhile in order to access The Good Bits people have to log on. When they log on we match The Good Bits to their particular affiliations and inclinations. Everyone sees the history the want to see. There are no conflicts.”

“You see it was never about the truth so much. It was much more about the kids. People just didn’t want kids learning things they didn’t think was good for them. The truce is that everybody gets to decide what’s best for their own kids but leaves the other kids alone. So far it’s holding.”

The way he put it I felt very important. I had thought of it as a nothing job, just a way to pay for my body transplant, but now it felt like I was preventing World War two or something. The title wasn’t bad either.

I wired myself in for my first day as Head Librarian.

[i] In an attempt to make history more accessible for young people the notation BN for “Before the Net” was adopted in, about 60 BN. Younger readers may only be familiar with the BV, BG or BO notations introduced for similar reasons more recently.
[ii] V.T. or Virtual television was an anachronism even in my own time. We just called it V.

If you liked this you might enjoy searching with See as to why.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Why are Christians such a bloodthirsty lot? – The Unpayable Debt of Salvation.

2.The Folly of Evaluating Christianity 
3.The Unpayable Debt of Salvation (You are here)

There are different ways I could break up this series on the roots of Christian violence – chronologically or thematically. Fortunately this topic comes first of all in both. Here is a possible root of violence that is present within the life of the apostles, possibly even within the life of Jesus himself. It is also a theme that is primary to Christianity and remains so.

Just a reminder, this is going to be a series of my reflections on the question at hand. I’ve said before that I’m not buying into what is “real” Christianity or not. That means I remain interested in what some might consider “merely human” developments of “real” Christianity. That also means I’m not going to pull punches in order to respect some divine core of Christianity either. There will be sacred stones upturned too.

The stone I want to turn over in this post is the identity of God that Jesus represents and the emotional relationship that evoked and still evokes from his followers. Jesus stood out from the other divine alternatives in the first century. I think there are ways that this difference can inspire Christian violence.

That isn’t to say that other ideas of God wouldn’t inspire other ideas of violence. Nor am I saying that violence is a necessary conclusion of the way in which God is described in Jesus. It is merely to say that there’s a particular Christian form of violence inspired by the particular Christian way of relating to God.

The Christian movement’s growth in the first three centuries of what we call, not co-incidentally, the Christian era is amazing. Reliable estimates don’t exist but you could guess there were as few as five hundred followers of Jesus around the time of his death (just a conservative average of Acts 1:14-15 and Acts 4:4). You could further guess that in three centuries this number could be as high as ten percent of the Roman Empire – about six million. That’s the estimate of a historian named Erwin Goodenough (and it’s good enough for me).

Amazing as this is, Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity (pp5-8) points out it’s hardly miraculous. A growth rate of just forty percent per decade (which today is matched by Mormonism) gets you from five hundred adherents to a whopping eight and a half million in three centuries. By comparison the American Religious Identification Survey has Wicca growing by 168% in the U.S.A. in the last decade of the twenty first century. That was before Twilight too!

Still as anyone who has tried to start a new religion will tell you, it’s not as easy as it looks. Christians faced persecution of differing degrees for about half those three centuries. I believe (again leaning on Rodney Stark for my view) that this persecution actually supported Christian growth. I also believe that we can, by contemplating the meaning of this persecution for Christians, come to understand a turn to violence by Christians when the persecution ends.

Firstly we need to understand how the gods were viewed by most first century people outside of Jews and Christians. The Romans’ own creation myths were about the creation of Roman civilization. They borrowed from the Greeks primarily to explain the creation of the whole world. The Greeks themselves did not have a single creation story. One consensus though was that the world had not been created by the present generation of Gods at all. A common belief attributed creation to the Gods’ forebears who had either perished or withdrawn from the world. It was sometimes argued that the world had been created by something so unchanging and perfect that it had no personality to speak of – the unmoved mover. Today we might call this something like deism. The Gods that pagan Romans and Greeks actually interacted with however were not such a God as that.

The numerous Gods that the pagan Greeks and Romans interacted with were therefore not owed fealty as the Jews and Christians owed fealty to their God. They had no authors’ rights over people. People were free to contract an alliance with one god instead of another, with several gods at once and with some but not all.

Further the Greek and Roman Gods were not all powerful. They had spheres of influence but they weren’t the sole determinant of what happened in those spheres. Mars was the god of war, but if you won a battle you did not have to thank Mars. It wasn’t necessarily to Mars’ credit. Some battles were won by luck or through another God’s influence or in fact just by human effort.

By contrast the Judeo-Christian God, Yahweh (who would later be shared with Islam) is held to be the sole creator and determinant of all things. In fact Yahweh is so omnipotent that the concept of any human agency has at times been ruled as heretical. Yahweh is understood to have complete and absolute author’s rights over all their creation including people. We are not free to contract ourselves to other Gods. We owe this Hebrew God everything.

You might think that if God is owed everything then first century Jews could say they owe God some smackdown for their woes. However in Judaism and Christianity our positive debt is so huge that no amount of misfortune affects the scale of it. We are in debt for the ability even to have a bad day! In Roman culture it would be considered churlish to not thank the goddess Ceres for a good harvest. It would be considered wise to ask for another good year in the next and to do so respectfully with appropriate rituals. In Jewish culture thanks is due in a bad year or a good year - exactly as much thanks. The Jew or Christian holds that God owes them nothing. Also that God owes other people nothing too. The debt of the created is all one way and beyond our comprehension.

As if this wasn’t enough the Christian takes this debt and effectively doubles it. Both Christian and Jew believed in the first century that the subjugation of the kingdom of the Jews was a consequence of their failing God in some way. The shared conundrum of all Jews in Jesus’ time was how if Yahweh was indeed in charge that Yahweh’s temple was defiled, their people were diminished and their law was flaunted. A few sects believed they lived in the end times when God would soon restore their temple, people and law. But God, it was believed did not want these things in an unholy condition. They needed to be purified before restoration.

Jesus comes to represent at least two messages of purification and restoration which are a little too complicated for this post. What’s important to stress is that Christianity universalizes the condition of the Jews. The entire world is somehow suffering and tarnished and not how it should be. This is particularly evident by the lack of regard the world holds for its supposed creator. Jesus is the means of purification and restoration for the whole world and for each individual who turns to him. In order to be that Jesus had to suffer and die.

Many Jews did not recognize the means of their purification and restoration in Jesus. Moreover they understood the whole idea differently to the idea that their monotheistic deity Yahweh would send a son to do this. As the Jews understood it the covenant with God was to be restored by a human messiah who would be a perfect Adam, hence undoing the damage done by a flawed Adam in the beginning.

In this way Jews shared with a Pagan view that a person is in a healthy state if they have resolved any imbalances between themselves and the divine. Outstanding debts are unhealthy. Actually it would be fairer to say that Judaism lies somewhere between Christianity and paganism in this regard. The debt of creation can never be repaid but humanity and Israel in particular can at least hope to restore the covenant.

When Christians declared Jesus to in fact be divine from before birth, and equal with God (the Father) in essence though not function* they destroyed any hope of a human resolution to the broken covenant. This was now achieved entirely by God and in a painful and humiliating way as well. This effectively doubled humanity’s debt. It placed us in a position of virtually never being able to repay it. For a Pagan recently Christianised this was a position of ill health with almost no cure.

Contemporary Christians may baulk at the use of “virtually” and “almost” to describe the un-reparability of our salvic debt with God. A modern Christian probably can’t imagine any feasible repayment. However the Christian of the first three centuries had a solution at hand - martyrdom.

He (Jesus) said to him “Yes Peter, I am being crucified again.” And Peter came to himself and saw the Lord ascending into heaven: then he returned to Rome rejoicing and giving praise to the Lord, because he said, “I am being crucified”; since this was to happen to Peter.
–Acts of Peter where the apostle decides to return to Rome to be seized and executed. He is later crucified at his request upside down.

“The truth is, I am afraid it is your love that will do me wrong. For you, of course, it is easy to achieve your object; but for me it is difficult to win my way to God, should you be wanting in consideration of me… Grant me no more than that you let my blood be spilled in sacrifice to God.”
– Ignatius of Antioch asking his fellow Christians not to try and prevent his martyrdom around AD100.

In these records of early Christian attitudes (whether the Acts of Peter are accurate they were shared and believed) there is a rejoicing in martyrdom itself not just a lack of fear of death. These are not reluctant martyrs. This is consistent with the hope that martyrdom repays a Christian’s debt to the divine.

We can also look at the recurring religious phenomenon of self-mortification. Here the feebleness of human worship as a response to the crucifixion prompts some people to re-enact the suffering of Jesus. Mortifications are chosen which correspond to those sufferings i.e. whipping, a crown of thorns, carrying a cross or even, in the Philippines today, actual crucifixion. This is just sharing in Jesus wounds though. Martyrdom is an opportunity to fully respond in kind to Jesus. This would have been a great relief for Christians struggling with an inability to “close the circle” of exchange between them and the divine.

I don’t believe it was necessary for every Christian who felt this way to actually be martyred. It would have been enough to share in the possibility of martyrdom for all but the most determined. Just such mass public declarations of Christianity under persecution did occur. In the second century the entire Christian population of the region paraded past the house of a Roman governor in Asia Minor. They protested a policy of persecution and were strong enough to go unpunished for it. (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p192)

In AD 312 however martyrdom opportunities dried up. The Roman Emperor Constantine converted. By 314 Christianity was officially tolerated. This upstart and rebel religion was on its way to political dominance. If my theory of a desire to repay divine debt has any validity the question has to be asked, “What does a martyr do when they are in power?” How is the colossal double debt of Christianity lived with?

I have good reason to believe that turning to violence against others is a natural response to these circumstances. That’s not due to any ancient document but the testimony of my own heart. When I recall the debts I feel burdened with and then think of people I consider fellow debtors who fail (refuse even?) to acknowledge that debt… something like anger and disgust can emerge.  I haven’t only seen this in others. I have been it.

When our desire to honour the debt is frustrated the next best way to “honour” the creditor is sought. That search is charged by our guilt. That can mean zealously teaching some respect to those who also should be grateful. At the very least abiding people who didn’t acknowledge their creator and saviour would have been a new challenge for a pagan mindset to overcome. It would be like watching a great hero who had suffered terribly to save everyone from danger being disregarded and defamed.

This kind of Christian violence is not only political. It is not merely a top down consolidation of power by a Christian elite. It is an emotional and irrational force. Jewish and pagan proselytizing was punishable by death by the mid 400s. However before that it was necessary to pass laws stating that “Jews are not to be attacked or synagogues burnt, but they must not outrage Christianity.” and that “Synagogues (are) not to be pulled down or confiscated” though “New ones not to be built”. (Medieval Sourcebook: Legislation Affecting the Jews from 300 to 800 CE) This suggests that the government was following even trying to minimize public violence rather than creating it.

In addition to motivating religious persecution Christian theology tended to legitimize it much more than paganism had. After all if you are a creation of Yahweh what right do you have to worship or even consider other Gods? If you have been additionally purchased by Yahweh’s son what right do you have to offend him with temples or synagogues that deny his salvation? It would be much more than a thousand years before Christians would substantially say anything other than “no right at all” to these questions. Religious persecution in pre-Christian Rome was actually limited and aberrant. Rodney Stark’s Rise of Christianity considers it overstated. Motivated by the burden of untouched debt to Christ it eventually became the unquestioned norm.

If any among them seek to introduce impious vanities, denying the resurrection or the judgment, or the work of God, or that angels are part of creation, we require them everywhere to be expelled forthwith; that no backslider raise his impious voice to contradict the evident purpose of God. Those who utter such sentiments shall be put to death, and thereby the Jewish people shall be purged of the errors which they introduced.
- Emporer Justinian 527-565 A.D.

It’s certainly not necessary to respond with violence to the catastrophic debt levels described by Christianity. Many people accept that they do not repay their creditors (God or parents or teachers) but instead pay it forward as best they can. This attitude, also founded on a sense of debt, can be found in the lives of many modern Christians. Volunteers at my local op shop, I’m thinking of you.

Similarly when plague killed a tenth of the Roman Empires civilization Christians tended to the sick and dying. They didn’t limit their service to their own and gave more care to pagans than the pagans own priests and leaders. We have received our concept of universal public health care from these people. We can guess they too were motivated by a theology of being owned by and owing God.

However many people have desired to pay God back for creation and for salvation. Those people have often viewed sacrifice in its literal and physical form. When sacrificing themselves becomes impossible I suggest that it’s a natural step to sacrificing others. There is nothing particularly unorthodox about their theology either. It is built on solid Judeo –Christian beliefs. These early martyrs are still taught as Christian heroes but it’s the martyrs you actually want to be afraid of.


*Christology is in my opinion a massively tiresome area of theology. I hope no-one minds if I keep my coverage of it simple. I find the hairsplitting between essence and substance and actuality and so on to be largely meaningless; basically most Christians declare Jesus is God.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The folly of appraising Christianity.

We can't even know if egg on pizza is a good thing.

Although I thought I was being very clear in my last post (and the first of a series) “Why are Christians such a bloodthirsty lot?” It seems I wasn’t clear enough. Or perhaps there is just no walking through a food fight and keeping my shirt clean. So in response to a few conversations I’ve had since the last post I thought I’d write this quick note.

To be absolutely clear I think appraising Christianity as overall “good” or “bad” is stupid. I think when people say we need to be grateful for Christianity as a historical benefactor they are being stupid. I think when people say that Christianity has made the world a terrible place they are being stupid. There are several reasons why.

Firstly it’s like asking whether writing is good or bad. Yet I am in the middle of writing a series of posts. Although they haven’t been written yet, this series relies on all writing before it to get written so it is part of the current potential of writing. As does the poem you could knock out this evening. Who can say now if that will be a good or bad thing? Similarly Christianity is a living thing. You can attempt to put it in the scales and weigh it but you’ll be missing the new growth of the emerging churches and neo-calvinism for a start. We are humans and our history doesn’t fit in a Petri dish. The Petri dish fits in our history.

If you don’t care for that objection because you like, and think history is, looking at “things” (gunpowder, homosexuality, cheesemaking, ghoststories, Christianity) pinned to a board then I have others.

Christianity in the third century exploded in outrage against what had preceded it, including the persecution of Christians. In particular when Christianity destroyed the library of Alexandria it was largely an illiterate slave movement whose leaders had only just shoved the pagans out of government. For all the sorrow about what Christianity cost us in that act have we forgotten that there was little “us” between the master and the slave? I’m both a lover of knowledge and a big ass lefty. The lover of knowledge mourns the ending of Egyptian religion in the Christian era and the severing of that link to the past. The big ass lefty asks whether anyone waiting to be sacrificed to the crocodile god should have been expected to give a shit.

The big ass lefty in me asserts that it is important to look at history from the perspective of choices made by people in recognition of their equal worth. Too often we expect the same classes of society (the poor, women etc) to bear the costs of the greater good. Maybe societies’ overall stability is threatened by women wanting to explore their leadership potential. If so, tough. Calling it good or bad as if it is ever reasonable to ask women to shut up for society’s overall benefit is not something I’m prepared to do. Similarly we have to ask ourselves whether Christianity wasn’t forced to have a violent birth or none at all by the Roman Empires own abandonment of its’ pluralism (persecuting Christians and Jews from 64AD to the roughly 300AD with equal periods of tolerance). In such a situation when the oppressed of that society choose what’s advantageous for them I am reluctant to judge them for its broader cost.

That said mobs do terrible things and from mid 300AD Christianity began what can only be called a reign of terror that would have seemed without end to those who endured it. What began as a movement for the oppressed became their cruelest master. To me, even as a non-Christian the brutality of the crusades or the macabre works of the Spanish Inquisition are deeply inconsistent with the Gospel narratives. That they were able to be based on those narratives is a conundrum worth answering. We should be very interested in not repeating those theological conclusions.

Furthermore Christianity once in power proceeded to burn all its local competitors. In a matter of centuries it became punishable by death across the Holy Roman Empire to profess a belief other than orthodox Christianity. Knowledge that wasn’t Christian was largely destroyed even if it wasn’t about theology. Then slowly, painfully, in fits and starts (ask Galileo), that knowledge is either rediscovered or it reenters pockets of relative free society (like Renaissance Venice) from outside Christendom.

Christianity does end up delivering us all sorts of amazing benefits. But would the pagan world have taken so long to abolish slavery, allow women to inherit, universalize education or produce the rights of the refugee (and then ignore them)? Or would we be there and more? Or would we never get there? We can’t say.

It’s like if IBM got rid of Apple Macintosh (and Amiga and Commodore 64) in the early eighties. Then it crushed Microsoft and Sony before they got off the ground. If IBM then delivers Wifi in 2090 should we be grateful? Should we consider IBM our great benefactor? Or could we reasonably wonder if we might have got there earlier without them? Fact is we’d never know.

Sure we can play the parlour game of “what if” regarding Christianity or for that matter any other historical event. What if Paul the Apostles boat sank? What if Constantine had never converted? We can certainly look at China where Christianity was quiet for so long or India or Australia to speculate on worlds without Christianity or a different one. However let’s be honest that we are just having a lark speculating wildly. There are too many variables to make this anything like proper scholarship.

Anyone who tries to tell you they have a definitive picture of how the Western world would look without Christianity is either a liar or an idiot. It’s the question of whether assassinating Adolf Hitlers grandfather as a kid would have averted World War two, in a different form. Maybe paganism would have had its own Spanish Inquisition. Maybe a world without Christianity would still have slaves or would be colonizing the stars by now. We can’t know. Whether Christianity has been overall “good” or “bad” is therefore impossibly difficult to say.

Writing, as the example given at the start of this piece, is an apt one. Christianity is actually well understood as a language. There are concepts it says well and others it struggles to express. There are ways it inclines debates and types of answers it predisposes us to. There is also a lot of freedom within it. At its core Christianity says we have all been created by one God and belong to that God. We have earned Gods punishment by sin (maybe Adam and Eves, maybe our own). Jesus as the foretold messiah of the Jewish faith (and maybe God or God/man) somehow redeems us and calls us to live in fellowship with each other (maybe just the other redeemed or maybe all the created).

I think on this level alone it is somewhat meaningful to discuss Christianity’s “goodness” and “badness”. We can cry out in frustration that this language misses or is clumsy with meanings we cherish. Or we can thrill that it captures what matters to us neatly or give us tools of expression we need. But let’s be honest as well. Let’s try not to confuse our own lack of imagination with the actual limits of the language.

With the language of Christianity I can write anti-child labour laws. I can also write that the smell of burning witch flesh is like an incence offering to God. I can write grafitti to bring down an Empire. I can write a soppy Christianized birthday card. I can write Highway to Heaven and Touched By An Angel. I can write Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations. I can write something different next….

…or you might. That’s history too.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Why are Christians such a bloodthirsty lot? - Introduction.

Nazi Priests salute Hitler
This is part of a series of connected posts linked to here:
The Folly of Appraising Christianity
The Unpayable Debt of Salvation
The Forces of Light and Darkness
Regular readers of this blog will know that I hold a lot of respect for many Christian authors and leaders (Tolstoy and Desmond Tutu amongst others). However I’m not actually disagreeing with them if I complain that “Christians are a bloodthirsty lot”. They too would say that many people have rapaciously embraced violence while professing that their lives belong to Jesus. The following quotes a Christian organization;

Presently, of course, in most Christian Churches a person(s) can remain in Full Communion, be considered faithful to Jesus and still be killing, helping to kill or planning how to more efficiently kill hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands of his or her fellow communicants!
Centre for Christian Non-violence.

“Christians are a bloodthirsty lot” is an impossible claim to absolutely prove however. Do we really have a basis for comparison in other faiths or atheism? All beliefs pass through stages depending it seems on their access to power. If we take a snapshot of any belief system while it sits on the Emperors’ throne it will often be disgustingly violent. Look at sophisticated and enlightened philosophical atheism when it won the French revolution and fell into romantic savagery. Look at gentle nature loving Paganism under Rome. Similarly Christianity at times and locations when Christians have little power has always been the model of pacificism. Maybe a more defensible statement is that governments are bloodthirsty and that Christian government is no different.

It is even possible that an inherent violence of the believer is tempered by Christianity. Maybe Christianity just includes very originally violent believers who are in fact improved by coming to Christianity! If so we would be better off saying that “people are a bloodthirsty lot” not “Christians” necessarily.

That said, Christianity is not a spectacularly effective impediment to violence. If nothing else we have to concede that “Christians are a bloodthirsty lot” doesn’t leave the affirmative team in a high school debate with nothing to work with;

  • The Spanish Inquisition
  • The Crusades
  • The English Civil War
  • The Conquest of South America
  • World War One
  • The Empires of Germany, Great Britain and the United States of America.
I think it’s foolish however to imagine we can ultimately convict or exonerate Christendom for blood thirst or any other crime. Firstly there is just too much historical diversity to combine. I could mention witch burning but I’d also have to mention the first feminists.

Those are obvious legacies to credit Christianity with but many more contentious attributions exist. Because Christendom had a scorched earth policy to other cultures and ideas during its rise there really is very little in Europe at least that didn’t have to be recreated in some way at least partly by Christians. Modern Science can be said to be borne out of Protestantism for example but only because it had already been purged from European society by a Christian antipathy towards it. Still it was reborn and lived. The same can be said of Christian non-violence. In fact I would go further and say that is less a recreation and more an original idea of Christianity though it too was purged and reborn.

Secondly there are too many factors other than religion to consider. Responsible historians realize that technology, economic factors, and interactions with other societies all impact on conflict in and between societies. It’s true that the indigenous Australian religion coincides with largely peaceful stability compared to the relative shorter and much more violent life of Christianity but has that also been because of a consistent balance of power rather than theology?

Thirdly this isn’t going to be a series to argue what is “real Christianity”. I went there a bit in Tolstoy feeds me Humble Pie.  I’m only going to be talking about historical Christianity here. I’m quite happy to leave open that a) some or even all of historical Christianity has gotten “true” Christianity wrong and b) that Christianity done right is actually non-violent. In fact I increasingly think along those lines.

What still remains is the fact that people believing themselves to be Christians have justified extreme violence. We live in a world where a United States government endorsement of torture can be a vote winner amongst evangelical Christians. I want to look at how this has happened. Who has laid out what arguments to do this?

In doing this I need to put their arguments in the context of the difficulty they have to overcome as Christians. This is what makes this question particular interesting; Because what makes Christian violence difficult is the foundational story of Christianity.
Jesus is a historical person surrounded by violent Jewish identity movements. This religiously charged violence took two forms. One was political violence against the Roman authorities and designed to change the political environment. The other was violence designed to preserve the holiness of the Jewish community – essentially by killing those Jews who sinned. Jesus is recorded in the gospels speaking against both.

The scene with the woman who is being stoned for adultery gives Jesus response to violence for holiness sake;
7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. 10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” – John 8:7-11

Jesus response to his own arrest gives us his opinion of politically motivated violence;
36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37– John 18:36

Both these quotes don’t stand alone in the gospels. There is also the famous rebuke of Peter the Apostles use of his sword to defend Jesus. Even more powerful is the Sermon on the Mount (particularly Matthew 5:38-43) with its well known phrases of “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.”

However rather than pulling quotes out of context it is more fruitful to remember exactly that context. There were violent struggles on behalf of the Jewish God all around Jesus. In roughly AD60 a Jewish rebellion centred on the temple takes place and is violently crushed. This was not the first such outbreak of violence; Jerusalem was a Roman empires’ trouble spot.

Meanwhile the purification of the Jewish people by the imposition of the laws of Leviticus in all their harshness is the project of the Pharisees. Both this violence and political violence can draw on a strong basis in the Jewish scriptures. God historically blessed both types of violence. Jesus never joins with this and neither do his followers.

The Jesus movements’ radical difference to these other contemporary Jewish movements remains after Jesus death. Both Jesus and the early Christians have a common response to aggression against them; martyrdom. In Paul’s letters we see a church that eschews even any involvement with the power of the courts (Corinthians 6:1-9). Lastly the Christian canon concludes with The Revelation of St. John. Here the Christian awaits Gods overthrow of the blasphemous and wicked rulers of the earth and Gods punishment of sin. They do not enact it themselves.

In the next few posts in this series I want to investigate how Christianity has in part overcome it’s early non-violence. I have a few ideas of where to look. Augustine is a pivotal early church teacher and father and may bear some fruit. Certainly Martin Luther presents a clear justification for righteous state violence in his Concord and Catechism. Even figuring out what George Bush Jnr meant when he said Jesus was his most influential philosopher could be helpful.

However I am putting out a plea to you. Any readers who have any suggestions of theologians who have justified Christian violence please comment below (or contact me directly if you prefer). I would be very grateful. Together we may be able to answer, “Why are Christians such a bloodthirsty lot?”

Lastly because there’ll be a fair bit of reading to do here, you can expect a bit of a gap between parts of this series. I’ll be sure to throw up some unrelated posts to break things up.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why does the Earth Spin?

My best writing days are Wednesday and Thursday so after finishing my last post on a Tuesday I asked my family what I should write next. My four year old child suggested “Why does the Earth spin?”

She’s suggested this topic previously actually. Unfortunately I had no answer. Fortunately neither do many people which means it’s a commonly asked question on the internet.  Have a guess and then see if your answer is here.

Here’s a question that the video doesn’t answer. Does the earth spin in order to make the seasons happen? Or do the seasons happen because the earth spins? At first you may consider this a strange or even idiotic question but its actually great for uncovering one of our most basic assumptions; that of determinism.

Teleology is the belief that certain phenomena are best explained in terms of purpose rather than cause. Its opposite is determinism: events are caused by preceding events. Firstly let’s apply both to some broken eggs in a bowl. The eggs were broken by being cracked on the table by me. That “caused” them to get in the bowl (the determinist why). However the purpose of me cracking them is to make a cake. That too is why they are in the bowl; the teleological answer.

The obvious problem with the teleological answer to why the eggs are in the bowl is that if I discover I have no flour and so decide to make scrambled eggs instead, the eggs don’t un-crack themselves. The teleological answer is only ever possibly right. In theory at least, a determinist answer can be absolutely right.

I have however confused what we know with what is. My chose of a teleological answer may only be possibly right but perhaps there is still one true teleological answer after all. I just didn’t know it. Perhaps I was always going to make scrambled eggs.

I happen to be a reluctant determinist. The eggs are cracked because I cracked them and the earth spins for some reason that precedes its spinning, a determinant cause. Then the seasons happen. You may agree and we can both sigh with relief that we have arrived at truth by consensus. But do we have any arguments for thinking like this? Is there any way of saying teleology is wrong? Not absolutely.

In fact there are many critics of determinism including respected physicists like Paul Davies. I had Davies’ book on this topic but can’t find it for this post and quite frankly I had a hard enough time with the first chapter. I believe it was called the End of Determinism and it argued that we live in a purpose fulfilling universe. References to this book and its ilk are frequently made during arguments for theism but I really am confused by how its claims can be substantiated. 

I don’t see how I can tell from inside the world if either a total teleological or determinist model is true or not. If the world is amazingly and improbably fine tuned then why can’t we just be lucky? Why does it point to a purposeful design? Or to put it another way, why can’t this be one of the trillion times the world has happened; the one that happened this way. Flip a coin enough times and you’ll eventually get ten heads in a row. If ten heads in a row is what’s necessary to sustain life then eventually some alive thing will be saying “Wow, ten heads in a row, this is a very fine tuned universe.”

Sure, standing in an unlikely universe feels like a powerful destiny but that feeling doesn’t qualify as an argument. Consider my loving and loveable partner. She gets me and I like to think I get her too. If we keep up this mutual understanding then after a few decades we’ll be one of those couples who you can’t imagine with anyone else. However our connecting at all was hugely unlikely. The odds of us meeting in the same house in the same city on this huge planet are astronomically low. Go back only two generations and the odds of our even existing drop to low so our relationship becomes virtually impossible. However, even if you go back to the dawn of time, there’s nothing particularly fateful about our relationship because any other outcome would also be roughly as unlikely. Some unlikely outcome was, funnily enough, bound to happen.

There’s a relevant quote from Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst whose work has had a big impact on film theory; “A message always reaches its destination.” At first this seems to support the teleological argument but actually it undermines it. A message’s destination is just where it reaches. In a movie various story arcs reach various conclusions (or don’t). It is then the viewer who, working from the basis that this is how it could only have happened, constructs the story.

I may be un-persuaded by the feeling of teleology but others feel the same way about how the world feels deterministic. Some people maintain that “everything happens for a purpose”. In fact the theology of Calvinism maintains that because God is omnipotent there everything happens according to God’s plan – even when it seems we make choices. It may be frustrating to contemplate, but there’s no way of being certain this isn’t a teleological universe, once we accept that impressions of determinism might just be a part of the story too.

Even though I don’t have to reconcile an omnipotent deity with my world view, my determinism is still reluctant. I was taken with a book by Steve Grand, Creation: Life and how to make it (2001) which discusses artificial life as distinct from artificial intelligence. A part of that discussion is that life does “stuff” we can’t predict from its programming. That may be stupid “stuff” or amazing “stuff” but it involves solving problems in a range of unforeseen ways. In fact it even involves re-imagining what the problem is. A linear program designed to prevent drowning for example would avoid deep water. Life might get swimming lessons.

What’s interesting is that if you take a teleological approach over a determinist one you can foresee more of this crazy life “stuff”. If I ascribe to various “actors” (not necessarily people but simple bacteria even) certain goals that they will try to fulfill then some of these out-of-the blue events can be modeled and predicted. This is covered by the science of game theory. Further from all the small narratives of each actor in a situation I can create a big story. I can at least ask if the purpose of life is to attain equilibrium or to simplify or to add complexity or to maximize overall pleasure.

Can we apply this to the earth spinning? Is this part of the solar systems’ story perhaps? Prior to Newton and his physics it was accepted that inanimate objects had “wills” just like living things. There are two reasons to be open to this idea. One is that matter is very complicated. There are atoms and subatomic particles and then… who knows. Further there seems to be consistent intentions of these particles. Electrons seem to want to do what they do. There doesn’t seem to be any forces operating on the electron but themselves. Secondly there isn’t any discernible sentience to things like bacteria or viruses. Compare the complexity of an atom and the simplicity of a single cell organism and the distinction between life which has a will and not-life which doesn’t, becomes harder to sustain.*

I’m not proposing a totalizing teleological world view like Calvinism. If this world is just fulfilling a divine author’s plot then life’s dynamism is as fake as it would be in a completely determinist universe. Both perspectives rule out spontaneity as anything other than an illusion. It’s precisely that spontaneity that I want to pay heed to.

I guess I’m talking about a localized teleology inside a broadly determinist environment. Each of us has a purpose we are trying to fulfill but there isn’t one winning (as in divine) purpose to the whole thing. How the whole thing plays out is then determined by the interactions of all our separate teleological purposes.

A localized teleology also avoids the general implausibility I feel a totalizing teleology has. There are just too many children dying of HIV (to use one example) for me to comprehend what kind of meaningful story is unfolding there. To put a rhyme or reason to it all seems insane. But as the unwitting consequences of a blood borne virus with its own goal of survival, it makes sense.

As for pure determinism it only ever gets me to this point but from here? If I reflect on determinism at the point of making a choice I come to some sort of time-traveler’s paradox. My reasons for my next actions need to be my purposes not just the result of preceding events. If I don’t have a will I can’t find a way. A localized teleology gets me out of this fix and while practicality may not be a perfect test of truth it does mean I pick up my child from kinder on time.

Calling my purposes something real and effective is something I like to do with restraint. We can all have moments when we’d like the spinning of the earth to be about our own purposes too. I feel that it’s arrogant to presume this. However (and this is where philosophy gets a bit silly perhaps) how do I know the earth isn’t spinning for me? I can’t really argue against such a proposition. I can only say I enjoy the company of people who value their own purposes and mine. And I don’t actually want the burden of the universe being about me anyway.

I thought that my child might be a little fond of such a teleological approach. I thought she might enjoy looking at the world as an unfolding story about her. In fact she much prefers determinist explanations. For example she would rather be told that it rains because there is moisture in the sky than because the trees need a drink (so that she can climb them). I believe the reason is that she wants to make things happen. Determinism helps with that much more than a teleological explanation could.

It’s a great exercise to explain this blog post and others to my child. Four year olds are not bad arbiters of what matters. I hope she figures out how all sorts of stuff is caused so that she can make things happen. I hope she makes things happen in order to fulfill wonderful purposes too.

I hope the earth never stops spinning for her.


*This is science as understood by someone who glazes over at the words “atomic weight” so you may want to take it with several grains of salt.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sermons I would like to hear: Faith is a gift.

This is the second in a series of sermons I would like to hear. I’ve found them both great fun to write. I can be much more playful with concepts and if nothing else get to wander around the house spouting my terrible Desmond Tutu accent.

In fact in “researching” for this post I watched some Desmond Tutu clips on the net. He and I may be supposed to be theological opponents but I can’t see how a daily dose of that man wouldn’t make me an all round better person. That’s pretty much the point of this post.

You may have heard it said that faith is a gift. But what can be meant by this; surely not that our opinions are gifts?

Our opinions are the product of our work. We deduce and conclude in order to derive them. Opinions are tested and evaluated. In fact we should hope our opinions are not gifts. Any opinion that has flown into our mind without any work is apt to fly out as suddenly.

Our perception however, does come to us like a gift. No amount of brute work can force us to take a new perception. Our dignity resists the imposition of a perception which we do not genuinely already know to be there - that is to say which isn’t spoken to us from the world. All we can do to change our perception is to turn our worlds this way and that in order to see what such manipulation shows us. In fact we use the term “reveal to us” because the key to perception is revelation.

Healthy perception is also rightly cherished like a gift. I know from my own experience with depression that the perception that life matters and that I am worthwhile is a fragile treasure. There is work we can do to gain this perception but it is very strange intellectual work. We must eat breakfast. We must exercise. We need to stop moving and breathe; we are re-entering ordinary time after all from the eternal landscape of despair.

We cannot just manufacture a healthy perception from the midst of depression. This is the source of our suffering and that of those who love us. All we can do is prepare ourselves to receive wellness from the world. It reminds me of my favourite prayer in the Roman Catholic liturgy “Lord I am not ready to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

Then when we are well the madness of depression is equally foreign to us. We cannot get back there except by undoing the work of health. It is like an alternative life. By contrast an opinion is merely an island to which we can build, dismantle and rebuild the logical connections.

And what of faith in God? There is the part that is opinion supported in turn by argument. This is the part that is constructible and dismantle-able and ultimately replaceable. It is like scaffolding. However it is only like scaffolding in that it allows us to approach for study the perception of the world it surrounds. Opinion is not the skeleton of our perception – it is not holding it up. Our perception holds our arguments and opinions up.

This is why all arguments about God are fundamentally frustrating. Our only effective way to change a person’s mind about God is to turn the world the way we see it and show them. This is not much of an argument, the logicians point out. There are potentially an infinite number of ways to turn the world. So there is no way of knowing which way is necessarily right. It may be mine or yours or one neither of us have thought of.

Meanwhile those acts of speech which make good arguments only knock scaffolding off each other. Each party only ever leaves in doubt that their study of what they know is correct. The perception which essentially is the faith remains unchanged.

Up to this point you may think I am simply going to recommend a continuation of where we have been. The notion that faith is a gift was taught to me as a child with a specific meaning; theists are to count themselves lucky for having received their gift from baptism, conversion or their parents. Non-theists are to mourn that they missed out. If they lack the good sense to do that, non-theists should be ignored. Without the gift of faith to ground their opinions and arguments they have nothing to say.

Understandably non-theists have lost clumps of hair processing this way of thinking. There is a silencing pity behind it. Some non-theists however would like to make the argument themselves if only they could have gotten to the pseudo-moral higher ground first. More and more we do hear the claim that they are the gifted ones with the theists having missed out instead.

Many more people are just frustrated by such an end to any conversation. Both theists and non-theists can find the idea that we are trapped in separate alternative lives chilling. “There but for the grace (or gracelessness) of God go I” is a tragic truncation of humanity’s quest for understanding.

The most polluting element of the discussion is that we have closed our ears to each others joy. The theist and the non-theist are inclined to imagine the other is suffering in either a bleak or a totalitarian world view, deprived of wonder. Why is this so? Such an either/or situation doesn’t match the actually happy and healthy non-theists and theists I know. We have created it!

Are we victims of our leaders’ propaganda? Do they so fear losing us that they must tell us we are surrounded by a perceptual desert when we are not? Or have we simply become so embittered by conflict that we cannot hear a good thing about our neighbours’ world without taking it as an insult to ours?

Imagine if instead we all laid out our gifts like happy children on Christmas morning. Imagine if instead of thinking that your gift is bad because I prefer mine I asked you to show me its awesomeness. Imagine if I measured what you see in the world, not by how it makes me feel but by whether you are healthier and happier for it. Imagine if I tried to feel that happiness too.

Perhaps we will gain the ability to turn our head and see things the other persons’ way. If we do we might find that our own way of seeing is in fact, in contrast, like a depressed person’s vision.  In which case, we won’t need arguments to change our view. The soul leaps for health as I did when I escaped depression. But the anticipation that one of us will be unwell flies in face of our human history with and without God. There have been great lives lived with great joy by theists and non-theists both.

It may be that as our gifts are passed back and forth we will see in a way we have never seen before. I am not optimistic enough to say that if we lay our perspectives side by side we will make one whole world view but we might notice a missing piece. At least let’s reclaim the joy of discovery. There are gifts to open.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Telling the difference between "good" and "bad" morality.

Moral or not it would be kinda cool to punch the sun.
In my last post on moralising I may have left the impression that I believe we can’t tell the difference between legitimate and illegitimate moral speech. I may have given the impression that all morality is merely a struggle of raw power in the fancy dress of logic. That’s not my conclusion and I want to take risks to spell out what the difference really is between proper morality and just bad “moralising”, as I see it.

I need to digress and just quickly say by “see it” that I don’t mean “see it.” Moral philosophy is not the practice of describing the world as it is. For example, you can’t dispute someone’s moral statement that beef is morally the same as whale meat in the same way as you can their belief that a cow is (in behaviour and form) just like a whale. The relevance for this discussion is that of course moral philosophy is “just” my opinion of how we should conduct ourselves in the world. You can pull it apart and argue against it on the basis of where such conduct could lead or its impossibility or its contradictory motives but neither of us can just hold up something and say, “see” (though we might be able to say “intuit”). Equally there’s no easy referral to common sense or experimentation.

The question of what morality is legitimate can be understood in three related ways. Firstly we can ask ourselves about what topic of morality is genuinely moral versus what is a nonsensical one. Is what hand you wipe your arse with and what species of animal (if any) you eat and what gender your partner is and what’s your carbon footprint all universally valid or invalid topics of moral discussion? Or is there some basis on which we can say one topic is worth considering as moral and another is not? I resolve this aspect of the question by answering the following two.

Secondly we need to consider what information is relevant. This feeds into and flows from the first question because certain topics lack certain information whereas others lend themselves heavily towards it. I believe that for an action to be moral it must either have a harm or a benefit to enacting it. Something like swearing as you fall into the sun is amoral. In space no-one can hear you say “Bugger” after all. Unfortunately this test it isn’t as helpful as it first might appear. It raises a very difficult question.

How are we to identify harms and benefits? Harms are not self-evident but have to be found in contrast to an ideal. Or rather only if the ideal is self-evident can you then have self-evident harms.  A polluted stream is harmed only if we considered the streams capacity to sustain life to be important. That’s seldom in doubt but self-evident could be a stretch. How about when a person is patronisingly flattered to; they may be happier (a benefit) but their dignity is harmed is one way to describe why we might consider this a moral no-no. However dignity feels a little like a rhetorical plug here, as if we are giving it a physicality it doesn’t really have to keep our logic afloat. Meanwhile conflicts over euthanasia are often bound up in competing “self-evident” ideals.

My own view at first seems to complicate matters further. I don’t believe there is a set of narrow constant ideals. Jim Henson seems to me to have attained something ideal with his storytelling however that doesn’t mean that Quentin Tarantino has fallen short of that by being less optimistic. I applaud sword swallowing trapeze artists but don’t think the rest of us are bad people for playing it safe. I admire great teachers for wading knee deep in their communities but I don’t begrudge an ancient Icelandic historian their research hours. Going on I don’t think certain expressions of sexuality are a universal ideal, or that everyone should have a house and car to go with the two and half kids.

This lack of a narrow ideal is actually useful however. It is the means by which we can largely define legitimate morality – following the premises that no meaningful harms or benefits means no moral issue and only where there is an ideal can we have meaningful harms or benefits. If we recognise something ideal in Jim Henson’s work and something ideal in Quentin Tarantino’s work then we know that the ideal is not to be found in qualities unique to one or the other (puppets or gore). As more and more exclusive qualities are pared away and as we recognize the ideal in other art I propose we draw closer to triangulating the ideal, in this case for storytelling. We can do something similar with a life well lived, with relationship structures, with our relationship with animals and so on. Recognising various forms of the ideal allow us to recognise what is truly ideal and what is merely form.

This still leaves the greatest question of all which is how do we recognise the ideal. To do this I believe relies on a set of skills that are both fragile and instinctual. They are fragile because the conditions of their development are unknown – there may be more biology than we understand, maybe certain types of play are crucial – but when they are developed they seem surprisingly robust without a need to manufacture them repeatedly. What I’m talking about is empathy – the capacity to connect with and recognise very subtle deprivations or the flourishing of another human or even an animal’s spirit. Through empathy with the people impacted we recognise forms of the ideal and through different forms we can triangulate the actual ideal. From there we have harms and from there we have morality.

We are not done yet however because we can also question a morality based on its conclusions. Here I agree with the proposition that involuntary actions are amoral. It may be incorrect to blink when a ball comes at you or it may be best to blink and protect your eyes but it is not a moral matter at least not until your ninja training gives you control over that reflex. In a very subtle stretch of our point we can say that if I am falling into the sun this may be a sad thing but it’s not a morally bad thing. The moral conclusion that I should punch the sun out of the way shows we’re talking nonsense. This provides a fairly solid basis for a sensible moral conclusion– that it makes a contribution to our decisions about our actions -but the implications of this statement are significant.

 If the only legitimate moral conclusions are ones which contribute to our decisions then it becomes worthwhile to rewrite moral questions in terms of the choices for action open to us. To do that we need to have context, we need to take into account our actual power and the broader consequences of using it and we need to quite frankly be a little more real than most moral discussions are. We are going to end up either promising action or confessing immorality. For example if I am asking whether the indefinite detention of refugees in Australia is wrong I either mean nothing sensible or I mean should I vote for a party that supports indefinite detention, should I ever take a job at a detention centre, should I attempt to free people there, should I write letters to my M.P.? Broadly speaking should I take an opportunity to support indefinite detention or oppose it? What should I do?

I could say that my question is meant to be hypothetically meaningful; that I’m really asking if I was solely in charge of Australia’s immigration policy then what should I implement. However is this really sensible? It is like asking “If I was as strong as ten supermen should I even punch the sun out of the way?” A fascinating thought exercise perhaps but revealing of the sort of nonsense a statement that something is wrong in isolation can be.

To return to the question of moral topics then, a legitimate moral topic is one which informs our choices about actions which benefit or harm as measured against what is actually ideal (not merely one form in which the ideal is found). That’s a hell of a sentence there which will be aided by an example;
Because empathy allows me to recognize ideal relationships in married and unmarried couples or same-sex and opposite sex couples or for that matter friends, teachers and students and work colleagues but not in relationships of any form which thrive on belittlement or deceit I can identify a true ideal as being honest and mutually encouraging relationships. The core of a morality regarding relationships would be about promoting actions which build mutual encouragement and honesty between people (including myself and others). If something like marriage can be shown to serve that ideal then it becomes a secondary good thing to do. That would also be a case by case matter and of course marriage would only ever be good if it was possible and in light of its full context for the people involved.

I hope this hasn’t been too painfully dry for readers. From my own perspective this has taken big risks. I’ve certainly expressed more optimism than I feel every day – some days the idea that morality is all nonsense feels more credible. I’ve put some opinions out here that I may return to one day with vehement disagreement. However I’m also aware that this has very much been located in the thin air of abstracted principles. I’m imagining that anyone who made it this far may be chuckling at the idea that this is a post of tumultuous controversy when it barely touches on the real world applications. Ultimately it’s when our morality is played out on the ground that it is really defined.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Moralising anyone?

 Several days work researching and writing recently vanished with the collapse of my laptop. I’ve had some data recovered but there’s still a big loss. As a consequence I’m going to pause before returning to the topic I had almost completed on Roman Catholic attitudes to sex and contraception.

Quite frankly I also need a break from it. Whilst the highest Catholic authorities use a fairly cool language to describe the issues there are a lot of hotter heads amongst academics at Catholic institutions and writing for Catholic journals. Some of their comments are basically cruel and manipulative rhetoric. I’m more than a little sick of digesting it.

On a positive note I am now typing on a brand new computer! Closer to the point of this blog my discussions with people about contraception and general sexual ethics have raised a fascinating question;

What is Moralising?

When I think of moralising I think of a negative term meaning to go on excessively or inappropriately about morality. I don’t so much mean a certain type of discussing morality that is negative however, as I mean morality itself as seen from an angle that reveals its insufficiency – it’s inherent tendency to excessiveness and inappropriateness.

Moralising is therefore a trigger word for me that recalls a range of alternative ammoral perspectives which are pragmatic, non-dualistic and sensualist. The Book of Chung Tzu is a stand out example.

The Standard English Desk Dictionary of 1975 (in two volumes of actual paper on my shelf) defines Moralise as to indulge in moral reflection or to interpret morally. There’s no clear negative quality given to it at all. This surprised me although its also reflected most other dictionaries I perused.

Those dictionaries that did include a negative weight to the word moralising seem to be aimed at  non-english speakers. It’s as if they are trying to bring people who may not be aware of a cultural phenomenon up to speed. That cultural phenomenon is a broad disdain for moralising which isn’t hard to discover.

Ask almost anyone who doesn’t have a dictionary in their hand and they’ll have a negative pejorative association with moralising. Just as I do. What’s really interesting however is how diverse those negatives are. Mine emphasises a lack of pragmatics – the unhelpfulness of morality. My partner’s idea of what moralising means emphasised the inflexibility, the black and white vision, the lack of context that morality can sometimes have. For others it has been the weight of imposition and imbalanced power behind it.

Yet another theme is that morality can have sinister motives, either to herd us in ways that serve powerful interests or for an individual moraliser to make their wrong actions seem right. Moralising is used to describe the conduct of these insincere endeavours. That’s quite similar to how the word rationalising (which merely means to find reason for) is often colloquially understood as to manufacture excuses for bad behaviour. "Rationalising" is done by companies that chop down rainforests and "moralising" is done by Preachers who want brow-beaten flocks.

Equally fascinating about all these concerns is they come from outside the game so to speak. Let me explain what I mean by that. 

Morality is about right and wrong, defining what should be done and what one should  avoid doing. If I propose that something like living with your partner without being married is some kind of bad then from according to the logical flow of our discussion (“inside the game”) you are obliged to either concede the point or argue how it is not so bad and possibly even good. There are several types of “evidence” we can point to – a sympathetic connection with “the victim” as we see them, how this arrangement meets or fails certain rights, a social effect beyond the parties involved. If we agree on a morally authoritative text or understanding of natural law then we can also skip to that reference as well.

To say that my criticism of unmarried cohabitation is merely trying to excuse other behaviour, that this kind of morality is part of an agenda to control us, that other people’s relationships are none of my business, that it’s all too abstract a way to look at the situation or that I should “lighten up” are all refusals to play along. They are comments made from outside the game.

These responses don’t make logical sense in the conversation. They don’t flow or reflect what precedes them in a logical way. It is as I have said one plus one equals seven and rather than correcting my addition you have said “Maths is dumb.” If logic is our master then we should dismiss these responses.

However there are many instances when logic clearly is not a good master and needs to be reminded of its servant’s role. Seven is more than two, and two point two, four eight is also more than two. There are no arguments against accuracy to be found inside mathematics. However if two children argue because one got point two, four eight of a minutes more time with the favourite doll than the other then the aggrieved party can expect to have their case dismissed for lack of importance. In fact as a parent I think its important at this point to stand outside the game and point out the fruitlessness of the argument. We call that “not buying into it”. Maths (and logic) is for getting things done and there’s nothing to do here. Maths in this instance really is dumb.

In the same way labelling a discussion pejoratively as “Moralising” is an outside the game criticism of moral logic that can be purposeful and valid. Very few people would bother to defend writing with your left hand as morally sound even though it was once considered “sinister”.  A roll of the eyes is about all we’d give such a concern today and I consider that progress. However there are decent objections to the idea that the charge of Moralising (in its negative, pejorative meaning) really does come from outside the game. Criticising moralising is itself a statement of values; it is itself a moral statement. At a very fundamental level saying you shouldn’t tell people what to do is a contradiction. When I make this statement I am after all telling you what to do.

I am not the first person to make this argument. We live in a time when what was once intolerable is now increasingly a right, such as writing with your left hand but also the acceptance of the cohabitation of unmarried lovers and same sex relationships.  People who argue against these cultural changes run up against the growing belief that they moralise excessively, inappropriately, with the desire to control and impose behind their speech and a failure to consider nuance and context. In short they are accused of the pejorative form of “moralising”. They counter with the argument that anti-moralising is the aggressive new morality and that tolerance is now promoted with zealous intolerance.

As much as I eye-roll at those who preach intolerance of defacto or same sex relationships (or left handedness) I think they have a point that the criticisms they face are not truly outside the game. Or rather I don’t think there’s any clear inside or outside of the game of morality. There is a category of moral statements we consider legitimate moral discussion and another category of statements we consider “moralising” in a bad way. There is a struggle for our moral concerns to be included in the former category and for those concerns we don’t share to be in the latter. That struggle is no different to that of parent and child; where the child wants the parent to impose fairness over the fraction of a minute’s difference in time spent with the doll, and the parent wants the child to let it go. Just as eye-rolling doesn’t really cut it as an explanation to the child neither should it cut it for us.

As adults (pretend adults perhaps) this struggle is fought along the lines we define by our use of the term moralising. To give an example that puts me in the moralising corner you could consider the flippant use of gay to describe things as corny and trite. Leaving aside the fact that the fear of corny and trite inspires more shallowness than it avoids, I object to the use of gay in this way. I will ruin the party mood at times by pointing out how hurtful such speech could be to a gay person and how it is lazy and inaccurate. For this I get labelled as “moralising” which refuses to engage with any of my arguments but dismisses as stuffy the whole of discussing this topic as moral.

Looking specifically at my objection to morality as not pragmatic enough (that’s a blog post right there) you could consider my refusal to give much shrift to pragmatic concerns regarding the indefinite detention of refugees. Indefinite detention for child abusing priests is something I would not even agree with. They should at least know their sentence. Indefinite detention for people fleeing situations of torture and oppression because they might not be genuine but almost definitely aren’t is deeply immoral. Just think about what indefinite detention means for a second, apply it to your self and it should be obvious. However to some people I am moralising here in exactly the way I object to. I am drawing a line in the sand and refusing to even countenance any kind of cost-benefit analysis of the situation.

I feel that the people calling my attitude to gay jokes and refugee detention “moralising” in order to dismiss it, are actually proposing their own morality. It’s a morality that specifically excludes my concerns. I even think that, as much as any morality, it can be disingenuous, dichotomous, and inappropriate, with the desire to control and impose on behalf of power. In summary I think their use of  the criticism “moralising” is “moralising”!

I don’t really believe there’s a pax rationality that can solve these kinds of contradictions. I think language is supposed to be useful, and even normative, more than it is supposed to be consistent. And it’s massively worthwhile to limit morality to those matters which are of concern, as well as to point out when morality is being used to control us for hidden interests or when it reflects gross power imbalances. However we should be cautious using “moralising” in a pejorative fashion as our sole argument for anything. It’s worth recognising we aren’t really coming from an amoral and unassailable position. We are just trying to make ourselves unassailable. 


Note: I was recently and deeply impressed by an article by Hugo Rifkind  which makes a similar point to this post. He writes about how sport claims to be above politics and how that is in itself a politic. It is a politic that allows dictatorships to use the neutrality of sport to soften their tyranny and murdering corporate sponsors to connect themselves with health and hard work;
“In theory it’s about putting sport first; rising above the petty wrangles of current affairs. But in reality, current affairs are the things that kick down your door and drag you off to a torture dungeon. Rising above them turns you into a whitewashing service for any global villain with a cheque.”;
Essentially no morality is a morality.