Thursday, 28 April 2011

Open letter to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens

Help Protect Wills and Kate

Well-wishers flocking to the Royal wedding are told by police that they can help guard William and Kate from terrorists, anarchists and crazed stalkers.

The Daily Express

Dear Deputy Assistant Commissioner,

Thank you very much for offering me the position of Unpaid Human Shield with the Royalty Protection branch (SO14), as advertised in the Daily Express. I have seriously considered this challenging opportunity to spy on suspected subversives and to risk injury or death in the unlikely event of actually encountering a real terrorist, anarchist, or crazed stalker.

Although it has been a very difficult decision, I have concluded that in order for me to care less, you would have to remove the word "care" from the dictionary, so I will therefore have to decline your kind offer.

 I do appreciate the courtesy you have extended to me and my fellow subjects by making this generous offer, and I wish you well in your endeavours.

Yours, etc...

The Axolotl

I've never met an axolotl
But Harvard has one in a bottle
Perhaps - and at the thought I shiver -
The very villain from Fall River
Where Lizzie Borden took an axolotl
And gave her mother forty whaxolotl.
Wrote Ogden Nash, the man who also observed that although you are only young once, you can stay immature indefinitely (rather like the axolotl). Unlike the axolotl and its batrachian brethren you probably can't regenerate a lost limb, though.

Image courtesy of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology


Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Idiots give Darwin a break

And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

Genesis 1:16

Interesting developments in the wacky world of religious fundamentalism. Hardcore Bible-heads in Waco, Texas, have been taking time out from their favourite pastime of furiously denouncing evolutionists as Satan's little helpers, only to take offence at a whole new group of scientists - astronomers and planetary scientists:

Bill Nye, the harmless children's edu-tainer known as "The Science Guy," managed to offend a select group of adults in Waco, Texas at a presentation, when he suggested that the moon does not emit light, but instead reflects the light of the sun....

The lesser light, he pointed out, is not a light at all, but only a reflector.

At this point, several people in the audience stormed out in fury. One woman yelled "We believe in God!" and left with three children, thus ensuring that people across America would read about the incident and conclude that Waco is as nutty as they'd always suspected.

To be fair, this article, which was strangely posted under "latest news" on the Butterflies and Wheels web site yesterday, first appeared on the Think Atheist blog in February 2009, but it's still pretty extraordinary. I wonder what would have happened if the speaker had been Neil Armstrong himself, providing eyewitness testimony?

Crazy Woman (angrily): We believe in God!

Armstrong: Ma'am, I've been there. I've stood on it and I've walked on it and I can assure you that it does not emit light. It's made of rock.
Would Crazy Woman have accepted his word, or would we have witnessed a new alliance between people who are crazy enough to believe in creationism and people who are crazy enough to believe that the moon landings were faked in a in a Hollywood studio?

Whatever. Assuming the Bill Nye incident actually happened and isn't a wind-up (the link to the original article in the Waco Tribune no longer works, but then it is old news), I'm pleased for evolutionary scientists, who can take a temporary break from explaining yet again how inescapably colossal the mountain of evidence supporting the Theory of Evolution really is. On the other hand I'm a bit sorry for astronomers, who already waste enough time debunking fools who keep challenging them to disprove astrology, however many times it's already been debunked...

Monday, 25 April 2011

Yesterday's news

I don’t think that the British Empire was a benevolent institution, or that occupying other people’s land and denying them self-determination, whilst systematically exploiting their resources was morally defensible. I did once believe that the British Empire, although indefensible, was the least worst among recent empires. The Heart of Darkness was inspired by the Belgian King Leopold II’s hideous misrule of the Congo, a nightmare of brutality and exploitation that horrified even Europe’s other imperial powers. Even before his descent into the heart of darkness, Conrad’s Marlow was confident that the British Empire was doing ‘some real work’

Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red -- good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer.

The Belgian Congo became slightly less horrific in the Twentieth Century when it became a Belgian colony (as opposed to King Leopold’s personal fiefdom), but some degree of misrule and oppression continued until independence (don't believe everything you read in the Tintin comics). The transition to independence itself was grudging, chaotic and violent, with the departing Belgians conspiring with the CIA to murder the first elected Prime Minister of the new Republic of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, a secessionist war in the province of Katanga, and a UN peacekeeping force being called in to sort out the mess.

Italy fought a colonial war in Ethiopia in the 19th Century (and were soundly beaten), but came back under Mussolini in the 1930’s, carving out the short-lived colony of Italian East Africa with arial bombardment, poison gas, the execution of prisoners and collective punishment. They were only ousted by the advent of a world war.

German colonists in what is now Namibia exterminated between 30,000 and 110,000 of the Herero and Namaqua people in what is generally considered the 20th Century’s first genocide.

The French in Algeria became hated for systematically expropriating the local’s land.  They withdrew from Algeria not with orderly negotiations, but a vicious war involving torture, attacks on civilians and hundreds of thousands of casualties. There was more colonial land theft in French Indochina (AKA Vietnam). The result? Well, let’s just say that they didn’t get out of that one cleanly, either.

The oldest of the European overseas empires ended badly, too, in the Portuguese Colonial War, a bloody guerrilla struggle that killed thousands in Portugal’s African colonies and left Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau with decades-long legacy of political instability, lack of civil rights, high infant mortality rates, unemployment and malnutrition.

And that’s without even mentioning the horrors of Japanese colonialism in the first half of the 20th Century. So, in comparison, the Brits weren’t all that bad, were they? Historians like Niall Fergusson seem to think so. But that's only half the story.

I didn’t know a great deal about the Mau Mau uprising that took place in Kenya (then British East Africa) from 1952 to 1960. I’d heard snippets from parents, presumably based on contemporary news reports that treated the Mau Mau rebels as vicious terrorists committing atrocities against white settlers.

Those news reports missed out a few things. Firstly the cause of the Mau Mau rebellion – the systematic expropriation of Kikuyu lands in the Kenyan Highlands by force and by legal sleight of hand. The same sort of thing that made the French so unpopular in Algeria and Vietnam. The rebels rebelled (as they do) and the authorities cracked down.

For “cracked down”, read extra-judicial death-squads, collective punishment, sadistic torture and the mass internment of civilians in brutal, disease-ridden camps. 'Short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging—all in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights' was how one British colonial officer described life in the camps.

In 2011, papers documenting the suppression of the Mau Mau revolt were found and details published in the Times. The British had flown the documents out of Kenya on the eve of independence, because – according to a Foreign Office Official – they might cause embarrassment. ‘Embarrassment hardly covers it,’ a Times editorial drily commented, continuing ‘the covert history of colonial administration in Kenya bears comparison to the methods of torture and summary execution in the French war in Algeria.’ (no link, as the article is behind the paywall). The fact that the father and grandfather of the most powerful man in the world were Kenyans, locked up by the British for being involved in the independence movement* presumably does nothing to make the chaps at the Foreign Office feel any more comfortable. President Obama's grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, may even have been tortured by the British.

It’s not as if the British couldn’t have known better – they’d seen foreigners doing this sort of stuff from the Belgian Congo to Belsen. As a Guardian editorial put it. ‘there is something peculiarly chilling about the way colonial officials behaved, most notoriously but not only in Kenya, within a decade of the liberation of the concentration camps and the return of thousands of emaciated British prisoners of war from the Pacific.’

For those with a strong stomach, Gary Brecher has been reading Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, and gives a pithy summary of Britain’s dirty little colonial war

One of the frightening things about the Mau Mau uprising was the way that effective public relations triumphed and buried the truth. People of my parents’ generation read about it in the papers and went away with the impression that the uprising was just a bunch of fanatical terrorists attacking defenceless settlers for no good reason. We were the good guys. Nothing more to see here, move along…

They must have occasionally seen reports of the killing and chaos in the Congo, Algeria, French Indo-China, Angola and Mozambique and felt a quiet sense of pride that the British abroad had been so much more civilized and our exit from empire so much more orderly and peaceful. The British authorities were almost able to airbrush the whole episode out of history. The latest documents, along with some earlier leaks, mean they didn't quite succeed, but it’s already fifty years on, yesterday’s news. Justice delayed is, as they say, justice denied. It makes you wonder how many other stories have been deftly managed until it’s far too late to help the victims or bring the guilty to justice.

*this was befor the Mau Mau uprising but, even so, I’ll bet they’ve been squirming…

Friday, 22 April 2011

Go 30 days without news

I'm a bit of a news junkie, waking up to radio news most days. When I go away on holiday, I tend to stop following the news. When I get back I invariably find I haven't missed anything important. Maybe that means I should do something to control my addiction. Rolf Dobelli gives a few more reasons to kick the news habit, most of them pretty convincing. To paraphrase:

  • News focuses on visible and dramatic stories, crowding out the more subtle but probably more important things that are going on.
  •  Most news is irrelevant - in the last year, how many news items helped you to make a better decision about something that was important in your life? My guess is 'not many.' 
  •  We waste too much of our limited attention trying to follow an endless stream of decontextualised news bubbles, losing mental space and the important skills of concentration, focus and analysis.
  • When did a news story last change your mind about an important issue? My guess here would be 'not recently?' If the news you consume isn't challenging your assumptions about the world, is it really informing you or is it just feeding cognitive errors like confirmation bias and story bias (our preference for an explanatory narrative even when the truth is that nobody really knows the full facts)?
  •  If you don't know that a large proportion of 'news' is actually PR, opinion or propaganda, you'll be misled. If you do know this, the more news you consume, the more exhausting the process of trying to separate truth from spin.

On top of all that, Rolf Dobelli says:

'Reported facts are sometimes wrong, forecasts always.'

'News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. This sets readers up to have a fatalistic outlook on the world.'

'News kills creativity. Things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. They are oblivious to much that has been tried before. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas.'
Read the whole thing here.

I don't think I'll be going completely cold turkey for 30 day, but I will try to cut out deliberate news consumption for two or three days a week, just to see if it frees up some head space. But not before I've fired up Google Reader to see what's new on my favourite blogs. I can stop whenever I want to, honest...


Saturday, 16 April 2011

Weekend link dump

Just a few things I'd bookmarked, in no particular order...

Lysistrata redux

Greedy libertarians- an accountant speaks out

Pakistan's plague of spiders

Student debt - US style

Dandelions - if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em (via MetaFilter)

Here are some I made earlier...

fluffy is puffy

It is 10 times more secure to use "this is fun" as your password, than "J4fS<2".

Thomas Baekdal explains why it makes sense to use passwords you can actually remember, rather than ones so obscure that you either forget them, or have to write them down. Filed under "this shouldn't need pointing out, but it does."

The dead canary meets the flying kippers

The proportion of council seats that the Liberal Democrats are contesting at the local elections next month has fallen to its lowest point since 1999, with some senior figures in the party now acknowledging that they face an uphill battle because of their unpopularity in government.

According to the Guardian last week.

Jo Simmonds, a Green Party Councillor in Somerset dramatically illustrated the Lib Dem's plummeting fortunes in this graph.  The reasons aren't hard to find - as Northampton independent Councillor, Tony Clarke points out, it's the broken promises, stupid. Like the guy in the old advert, we know when we've been Tango'd, but at least when we've been slapped in the face by an annoying orange bloke, we can hit back at the ballot box. All of which is old news, but the graph's relevant to what's been happening this week too.

Why's David Cameron been sounding off about immigration? Take another look at the graph and compare the Tory column with the UKIP one. With the hot breath of the kippers on their necks, the Tories must be desperate to woo back all those disaffected xenophobes.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Committee think that care should be taken that only Sparrows should be killed

It is all very well to suppose that by eating fourteen flies a Sparrow disposes of their subsequent progeny to the tune of 280,000,000; but we know what these calculations, which look so prodigious on paper, are worth. Under ordinary conditions, how many of the two hundred million flies would reach maturity ? perhaps very few, or none at all.

It is a shame to see how the pretty House-Martins are decreasing in this country at the hands of the Sparrows, which dispossess them of their nests. There is hardly a country-place where this has not gone on at some time or other, although it has never happened to Mr. Morris (cf. 'Sparrow-Shooter,' p. 7). Some have argued that this does not matter, because the Sparrows do not kill them, but only evict them ; but wherever they go it is all the same, they are so much bullied that very few of them succeed in rearing young.

It may be that in some exceptional seasons (when a great plague of insect-life shall again occur), as in 1574, when it is said cockchaffers gathered in such numbers on the banks of the Severn as to prevent the working of the water-mills, and in 1868 when they formed a black cloud in Galway, which darkened the sky for a league, destroying vegetation so completely as to change summer into winter ('Wild Birds' Protection Report,' p. 170), Sparrows will do good. Bearing this in mind no one should advocate their extirpation; but Mr. Morris and his friends claim much more than this for them. They claim that in an ordinary year, when insects are not more than usually numerous, Sparrows do more good than harm: it is exceedingly difficult to prove a negative; but I do not believe that any one who has not made a series of dissections realizes how much corn they eat.

From On the Misdeeds of the House-Sparrow (Passer domesticus) by J H Gurney

Goodbye. See you soon, dear friends.

Ground control to Major Yuri...

Sunday, 10 April 2011

A uniquely biroid lifestyle

funny graphs - The Great Secret of Adulthood

When I was 18, I knew exactly what was wrong with the world and how to put it right. These days I don't even know where I left the last working ball point pen in the house. There must be some types of people who don't go through this sort of humbling reassessment:

a) genuinely brilliant people

b) highly-paid columnists with reality-proof egos

c) subscribers to the Veet Voojagig theory of biro loss.

At least I can still sometimes remember the thing I'm trying to find. The next stage comes when I can't remember what I came upstairs looking for...

Graph courtesy of GraphJam

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The gospels as infomercials

Years ago, the publisher Canongate produced a series of “Pocket Canons”; individual books from the Bible (authorised King James version) published in bite-sized separate editions. It’s a good idea; although the language of the Authorised Version is a joy to read or hear, bound into one book, it’s easy to be put off by the sheer bulk of the whole Bible (along with some of the more impenetrable proverbs, exhaustive rules and, regulations and the tedious lists of “so-and begat so-and-so; and so-and so begat so-and so, yea, even unto the nth generation…”).

I decided to take some Pocket Canons down from the bookshelf recently, in order to read the four canonical gospels in the (probable) order they were written. I wasn’t motivated by anything more than a vague curiosity about Christianity’s source material and how the story had developed and changed through four iterations.

Slipping the tiny volume into a pocket to read on a train, or taking it off the bedside table, where it takes up little more space than a drinks mat, is a curiously liberating experience. It puts you in a much more equal relationship with the text, in a way you never are when listening to a few de-contextualised passages being quoted by somebody trying to make a point, or when the rest of your hefty Bible silently sneers at you because you’ve only read about 25 pages out of 1,200-odd, you lightweight.

Each of the Pocket Canons has a short introduction from a well-known figure (some religious, some not). Some of these commentaries might be interesting, but I didn’t purposely read them, as the whole purpose of the exercise was to read the original stories without the overlay of commentary. Of course, it’s hard to deliberately not read things and my eye slipped over Nick Cave’s introduction to Mark. I don’t think it detracted very much from my reading – the gist of it was that Nick was an Anglican who’d been turned off by the namby-pamby  “gentle Jesus meek and mild” presented to him in Sunday school, but had been re-engaged when an Anglican vicar suggested he read the spare, lean, direct account of Jesus’ life in Mark. He has faith, I don’t, but his comments were quite interesting. Fair enough, I thought, and read Mark.

After Mark, Matthew. This had an intro by A N Wilson. Again, I wasn’t intending to read the intro, but I skimmed over it. This time I didn’t think ‘fair enough’ but thought the commentary was frustrating and annoying. Although I hadn’t intended to get side-tracked, Wilson’s comments are worth thinking about, because they highlight an enormous gulf of understanding between a lot of mainstream believers and non-believers. It’s possible that he was making a subtle point that I’m too dense to understand, but to me his thinking sounded confused and evasive. Whoever’s right or wrong, it’s worth examining what the problem is.

Wilson rhetorically supposes that the reader, born into a ‘post-Christian age, into a world of newspapers and investigative reporting and science’ will look at Matthew’s account of the virgin birth, the journey of the Magi, the various miracles and the resurrection and ask ‘is it true?’

He then tells the reader not to ask this question. Wilson says that although it seems reasonable to ask whether specific events in Matthew’s account are literally true, asking the question ‘can lead only to the most pointless, arid negativism.’

‘Your educated, scientific, modern mind’ says Wilson, ‘will decide that no one ever walked on water; no Virgin ever conceived; that corpses do not come to life.’ True enough. I’m no expert in hydrodynamics, obstetrics or (thankfully), death, but my experience of the world and what I’ve been taught and read suggest that such things don’t happen. But according to Wilson, if we make the mistake of ‘rejecting the Gospel’ because we think these are intelligent reasons to doubt it, we are in fact just ‘too hemmed in by our imaginative limitations to see the sort of things this book is doing’, and risk ‘rejecting one of the most extraordinary books ever written.’

Instead of applying ‘supposedly rational’ tests to the text, he suggests that we should think about Matthew in the context of Bach’s sublime setting in the St Matthew Passion or ‘old women in Stalin’s Russia … who stubbornly continued to chant the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount in defiance of the KGB.’ He goes on to extol the power and passion of the Gospel, in all its terrible wonder, its truthfulness and its self-contradiction. He speaks of irreconcilables, ‘rather than being fudged’ being ‘held together in self-contradiction’ whatever that means. He tells us that the author did not attempt to write a realistic, post-enlightenment history, but crucially fails to say directly what the author did write.

The point I think he’s trying to make is that there is some sort of deeper truth than historical truth and forms of understanding that transcend mere facts and if we don’t appreciate this, we’re missing something important.

I agree that you don’t have to take everything in the world literally, or on face value, but I can’t for the life of me, see how the key events related in the gospels can be anything other than either true or false. There are, of course, parts of the Gospels that are neither. When Jesus told parables about vineyards, or of seed falling on good earth or stony ground, or the widow’s mite, nobody this side of the extreme end of the autistic spectrum would think of asking about the real vineyard, field or widow. They’re made up stories, intended to illustrate a point. Everybody knows that. We all get it; that’s why nobody objects that foxes and pigs don’t really talk when reading Aesop or Animal Farm. It’s fiction with a point, it doesn’t pretend to be anything else and there are few people so imaginatively limited that they don’t understand this.

In more general terms, you can learn lots of things from literature and art, even when the story being told is the figment of somebody’s imagination. Empathy, seeing the world through different eyes, dealing with difficult situations, the nature of heroism and cowardice, prejudice, honesty and deceit, that thing we call love, loss, the nature of society, they’re all in there. You can be moved, changed or enlightened by a fictional story in a book, or a film, TV, radio, the theatre without the story being literally true or the characters ever having actually existed. But here’s the important point – those works of fiction are clearly labelled and you look for them on the fiction shelves. You watch a film and words like these pop up on the screen:

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

The Gospels contain no such disclaimer. If we exclude parables and proverbs that are clearly not meant to be taken literally, we’re still left with a narrative. The events in it are either true or they are not. Maybe I’m imaginatively limited, but I can’t see how they can be neither, or both. Either Jesus was born of a virgin, or he wasn’t. He either walked on water or he didn’t. He died and rose again, or just died. Either there is a God or there isn’t. If there is, either Jesus was his son or he wasn’t.

There are religious people who aren’t worried by this. Fundamentalists, who believe that every word in the Bible is literally true. This position contradicts a consistent meticulously-constructed account of how the world works that’s been painstakingly pieced together over two thousand years of patient observation and discovery, but at least it’s consistent – the Bible is true and anything that says different, ain’t. Of course, even if you believe in the literal truth of the Bible, you still have to deal with the Ned Flanders problem of internal inconsistency:

Why me, Lord? Where have I gone wrong? I've always been nice to people. I don't drink or dance or swear. I've even kept Kosher just to be on the safe side. I've done everything the Bible says, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.
Or, as A N Wilson put it:

The irreconcilables rather than being fudged are held together in self-contradiction.

Nope, I still don’t understand. Is A N Wilson saying something really clever here, something I’m too dim to grasp, or is he just Ned Flanders gone to college?

But most religious folk aren’t Ned Flanders. They accept that not all of the Bible, or all of the Gospels can be literally true. Fair enough – every historian, every person who hears or reads a news report has to deal with distortions, errors and omissions. It doesn’t invalidate a belief in the reality of historical events or current affairs. Neither does it absolve us from having some sort of view, however provisional about what’s true and what isn’t. However powerfully written an account of some event is, however influential, it is either fact or fiction.

I just don’t get the distinction that Wilson makes between ‘a realistic narrative of the kind that we might expect of a post-enlightenment historian’ and the vaguely-defined alternative kind of narrative that he implies the gospels must be. Sure, a lot has changed in two thousand years, but it seems unlikely that the nature of events has changed, such that things could simultaneously happen and not happen at the time of Christ.

Rather than thinking about allegedly real events in the context of literature, which seems like a category error to me, perhaps it would be better to think about events in the Bible as if we were a jury, trying to decide what had probably happened. Legal systems may have changed, but then, as now, people were judging their fellows for alleged crimes and had some idea that the accused either had or hadn’t committed a certain act. There have been documented legal systems since Hammurabi drew up his code in about 1,700BC. Leviticus is famously full of laws. The Jesus of the gospels is all too aware of law.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
Matthew 5:17

Then, as now, people didn’t have perfect knowledge, but if somebody was accused of a crime they’d go through some sort of process to establish what had actually happened. Even if there is, or was, insufficient evidence to know whodunnit, people then, as now, knew that something either happened or didn't happen.

Let’s say that the body of X is found in a ditch, showing obvious signs of violent assault. Y is brought to trial for the crime. Maybe there’s enough evidence to convict Y, maybe not. But in those circumstances, people would know they had to decide whether or not Y’s guilt could be reasonably established. They would know that he must be either guilty or innocent. There might be mitigating factors, self-defence, being of unsound mind, whatever, but there’s no getting round the fact that X has been killed and Y either did do it or didn’t do it.

There might be a world of cultural difference between a judge trying to decide such a case in First Century Jerusalem and the members of a modern jury, but all would have an idea of literal truth and objective reality – Y either battered X to death or Y didn’t. Regardless of mitigating circumstances or insufficient evidence, the objective truth is out there. Maybe there’s enough evidence to pronounce judgement or maybe there isn’t, but Y either did it or didn’t do it. There’s no ever-so-subtle pre-enlightenment world where a Judge might think ‘you know what, actually, it’s wrong to even ask whether it’s true that Y killed X; it may seem like a reasonable question, but asking it would lead me into the most pointless, arid negativism.’

Yes, the gospels have inspired great literature and art, along with debates about morality, authority and the individual conscience, they’ve caused people to impose and challenge systems of government, given comfort to the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable (and sometimes vice versa), they are the basis of the most widespread religion on earth, and they contain great poetry. None of which is relevant to questioning the assertions that Jesus was the son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water, fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, was crucified and rose from the dead. These events either happened, or they didn’t and A N Wilson hasn’t made an understandable case that convinces me it’s somehow wrong to even ask whether or not these things are true.

Wilson seems all too typical of mainstream religious people. They think themselves too sophisticated and intelligent to accept the evidence-denying certainties of fundamentalists, so reject a too-literal interpretation of scripture. But when you ask them what they actually do believe, what they literally believe to be true, it’s like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Ask the direct question 'do you think X is literally true?’ and instead of a direct answer, you get a lecture on how simple-minded and limited your question is, without any coherent explanation of how an actual event can pull off the impressive trick of having both not happened, yet (in a very real sense), happened.

All of which is a bit annoying. People who ask simple, straightforward questions stand accused of being shallow and literal-minded, yet as far as I can see, the people making these accusations are fudging the issue, refusing to say what they believe and leaving the events recounted in the gospels in some sort of convenient limbo in between fact and fiction.

Once upon a time there was news, there were features and there were advertisements. News was a more or less accurate accounts of stuff that had happened. Features were more or less factual and informative articles about something or other. People trying to sell stuff wrote adverts. Simple. These days we have amphibious things called “infomercials”, things that look at first sight like informative features, but turn out to be thinly-disguised attempts to sell stuff. I don’t have a problem with adverts that come out and advertise that they are adverts. I ignore most of them, or, on the rare occasions that I see something advertising a good or service I’m interested in, I might take a look. Infomercials, though, are uniquely irritating – anodyne filler features, written in an attempt to flog something by sneakily flying in below your critical radar. I find their bland slipperiness particularly off-putting.

For all their talk of the wonder, power and majesty of the gospels, people who refuse to even engage with the question of whether specific events are likely to have been true are demoting the gospels to the status of infomercials in their fence-sitting attempt to have the best of both worlds. Is it a feature or an advertisement? Neither; it’s an informercial. The virgin birth – fact or fiction? Neither; it’s something that transcends your crude categories. To me this all smells of fudge and intellectual dishonesty.* My working theory is that the people who tell us that we’re asking the wrong question because our minds aren’t subtle enough just want to kick the question into the long grass because it’s too uncomfortable for them, or challenges their authority or preconceptions. If somebody can demonstrate in clear, understandable language that there's more to this subtle, truth-transcending, pre-enlightenment way of knowing than fudge and wooly language, I really would be interested to hear the point made clearly. Until then, I don't understand their point and I don't think it's my fault that I don't understand.

*which, coincidentally, are among the whacky ingredients that go into Heston Blumenthal’s radical re-invention of the  fairy cake, his first recipe to actually  include an abstract concept alongside the more traditional freeze-dried yew berries, bergamot oil with a hint of eau-de-cologne and tiny squares of gold leaf

Monday, 4 April 2011

Political realism

“Of course we are completely committed to shaking our fists at bankers and saying ‘grrrrr’ at those exploiting tax loopholes, but as far as taking any action goes, well, it’s far easier to punish those who can’t fight back.”
“I’ve never understood why people say you shouldn’t not mocking the afflicted – they’re the only ones you should mock.  It’s the physically and financially superior ones you should leave alone.  They’ll kick your arse.”

explained Chris Grayling (allegedly, according to News Thump).

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Inter-faith dialogue

Some knucklehead sets fire to a book, then some other knuckleheads decide that the best way to improve the situation is to start killing people. I think that people who burn books are idiots. I also think that they've got a perfect right to be idiots - free speech isn't only for nice people who happen to agree with me. I don't believe that anybody has the right to kill innocent third parties, just because they're upset to hear that somebody has been acting like an idiot. Hell, they don't have the right to murder anybody, even the idiot who caused the offence in the first place. No ifs, no buts, end of.

A simple request. If people are offended by the symbolic destruction of inanimate objects and really must do something violent to relieve their hurt feelings, could they please take their offendedness out on inanimate objects and take human beings out of the loop of destruction. Since it's books that people are getting so upset about, why can't the protesters just burn a few Bibles in return? Even better, why can't the Gideon Society send the Afghans a few Bibles to burn? After all, wasn't it Jesus who advised that if 'someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also?' Or are all of the parties involved idolaters who value paper and their own pride above human life?

Even better, they could take some lesson from secular liberals who didn't enjoy watching copies of The Satanic Verses being torched by boneheads, but were big enough to shrug their shoulders and let it go, without even thinking of murdering anybody in revenge. But I suppose that's too much to hope for.