Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Volkswagen paradox

Here's another way to look at the former VW CEO's Rebekah Brooks-style claim that people at the top of his organisation had no idea about the systemic wrongdoing being perpetrated at more junior levels. Belle Waring finds this unbelievable, too, although following a directive from above must have meant that loads of people further down the corporate food-chain had to know, too, but all kept schtum for years, which is also pretty hard to believe:
I think cheating on this scale required, not just massive amounts of fraud, but a massive amount of complicity. No one at a lower level in the organization would take on the risk of freelancing a scheme of this nature. The benefits coming to you would be attenuated, and the danger would be great. This means that (minimally, some) people at the very top of the organization had to know about the software. Software powerful enough to determine when the car was being tested is complex and requires input from many sensors. This means (minimally, not a small number of) people had to know about the software. The person writing the proprietary code governing the steering wheel’s performance would have to be involved at least enough to have been told, “create an alert when the wheel hasn’t been moved in 2 minutes but the engine is running hard.” But it has always been my belief that, by and large, complex, dangerous conspiracies involving many people simply don’t happen. 

Read the whole thing here (the NYT piece which Belle references, is also good, highlighting the digital rights management angle on what was going on in VW's sealed black boxes).

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Volkswagen does a Renault

I'm grateful to Volkswagen's now ex-CEO, Martin Winterkorn, for this opportunity to yet again recycle one of my all-time favourite movie quotes:
"I am shocked by the events of the past few days," Winterkorn said in a statement released Wednesday. "Above all, I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group."
Maybe the head honcho really didn't know what was going on, but I do suspect that, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, he would say that, wouldn't he?
Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
Captain Renault: [aloud] Everybody out at once!

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The usual suspects

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.

The greatest trick the political right ever pulled was convincing the world that its ideology doesn't exist.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Forbidden ex-planet

The latest batch of Pluto images downloaded from the New Horizons probe look alien and stunning, sure enough. But to me, they also look both unreal and strangely familiar. They remind me of the artwork from some vintage science fiction film, an alien world as imagined by a visual effects artist from the 1950s.

To see what I mean, compare Pluto with the planet Altair IV, as visualised for the 1956 classic Forbidden Planet - the desolate plains, punctuated by towering mountain ranges, the hazy, layered atmosphere. The only thing missing from the New Horizons download is Louis and Bebe Barron's unearthly electronic film score.
Science fact is finally starting to look like science fiction.

The Forbidden Planet image was nicked from NZ Pete's Matte Shot blog, a highly-recommended wunderkammer of cinematic visual effects artistry, in what I hope is an act of fair use.


Thursday, 17 September 2015

If you can't say something nice...

... don't say nothin' at all (at least on Facebook):
In December 2014, [Zuckerberg] flat-out stated that the company will not build a “dislike” button that gives people a way to disapprove of one another’s posts. (I explained in some depth at the time why Facebook wouldn’t want that.) Rather, he said, Facebook was exploring ways to allow users to convey fuzzy sentiments like surprise, laughter, or empathy.

That’s very similar to what he said Tuesday, when he asserted that “what they really want is an ability to express empathy. If you’re expressing something sad … it may not feel comfortable to ‘like’ that post, but your friends and people want to be able to express that they understand.”
Will Oremus

So long as you uncritically approve of something, your Facebook opinion counts. If you actively dislike something, you don't deserve a voice, you hater. Stepping into Zuckerberg's walled garden is like entering the brightly-coloured, advertising-saturated, micro-managed corporate dystopia of The Lego Movie, where everything is officially awesome and no form of negativity is allowed.

Being rather counter-suggestible, as Mary Beard would say, this attitude irritates me. You don't have to be a fan of spoilsports, wet blankets and abuse-hurling trolls to understand the simple fact that, in the real world, everything isn't necessarily awesome. Inevitably there are also really terrible ideas, things that are dumb, obnoxious, badly thought out, or just plain annoying. In what reality* does it make sense to record only positive evaluations of absolutely everything and disallow any other point of view?

I've not had a Facebook account for years, so it's not my problem, but here's an idea for any resistance fighters still living in Zuckerberg-occupied territory. According to Zuck, what you're going to get, instead of a proper dislike button, is some form of  general purpose 'in deepest sympathy' button, maybe in the form of a little heart, intended for those times when somebody else's life isn't so great. But who says you have to use that symbol in the Zuckerberg-approved way? Why not appropriate the 'I'm so sorry' button as a sarcastic alternative to 'liking' something truly appalling, whether it's some ill-advised or obnoxious post from an individual, or a piece of advertising puffery from some dreadful, socially irresponsible organisation?

Instead of simply ignoring some horrible thing you've been invited to like, channel Father Jack Hackett's 'I'm so, soo sorry!' and turn the sarcasm meter up to eleven.

I'm sure that Facebook HQ would try to disrupt any such networks of subversion as soon as they became apparent (come to think of it, the system probably won't allow you to 'heart' advertisers from day one - that loophole's probably too much to hope for), but any sabotage you can get away with sounds way more fun than the lobotomised form of self-expression permitted by the authorities. Bon chance, mes braves!**

*Yeah, I know, it makes sense in the reality of the hucksters who are paying to shove their adverts into your eyeballs....

** Schoolboy French howler belatedly corrected

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Telling it like it isn't*

Ironic process theory or the white bear problem refers to the psychological process whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface. An example is how when someone is actively trying not to think of a white bear they may actually be more likely to imagine one. 
I should have taken ironic process theory into account before  publically saying that I wasn't going to mention the individual I now have to refer to as Oink Balloon. Because Oink Balloon does throw up some darned interesting examples of psychological processes - and not just ironic process theory:
...when a person says something that isn't seen as "self-serving" or "normative" for the position that they're in, other people are not only more likely to think that those statements are what that person truly believes, but they're also more likely to feel more generally like they can know what that person is truly like deep down. It makes the person saying those things seem more "authentic." And it makes us more likely to feel like that person isn't lying. Even though Oink Balloon has given us just as many reasons as the other candidates to think that he's a "flip-flopper," the fact that he's not saying things that you would expect a politician to say means that his audience will be more likely to overlook those flip-flopping reasons and assume he's actually a truth-teller.

So, Oink Balloon isn't saying what you'd "expect" a politician in his shoes to say, and people are responding to this by calling it "refreshing" -- because it creates this feeling that, for once, they can really, genuinely know what someone running for office is actually like. But of course, this all relies on the assumption that Oink Balloon's comments aren't actually "self-serving." Given the enthusiastic response that he's received from some voters and the fact that his "controversial" comments seem to be gaining him fans, we can't really claim that these comments aren't self-serving, can we?
Writes Melanie Tannenbaum in Scientific American.

I've seen a similar psychological process going on in a novel** I read years ago. The plot revolved around a character, Bell, with some murky secrets. Everybody around Bell thinks she's a completely honest, open person, an impression Bell has engineered by being blunt to the point of rudeness. 'She'd hurt someone badly rather than lie to them', says one of her friends. In fact, Bell lies about facts all the time, but her friends and aquaintances can't see this, assuming that she's always honest because she spares nobody's feelings.

Or, as Melanie Tannenbaum puts it, 'non-normative statements are seen as more likely to be "true."'

*Not a bad title, IMO, but I have to admit that somebody beat me to it.

**The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Garçon sans frontières

One of our holiday snaps, taken in Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau a municipality where, as a man from the BBC helpfully explained, 'you have little bits of Holland* inside little bits of Belgium, which are, in turn, inside The Netherlands itself.' Here he is, explaining more:

This summer, like millions of other people in Europe, we travelled through France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark without once being being stopped at a single border, or having our documents checked. It's the sort of thing those millions of Europeans have come to take for granted. Which, given the history of Europe, is a pretty astonishing achievement on the part of all nations concerned.

But, all of a sudden, borders are no joke.
The walls are going up all over Europe.

*It should be 'The Netherlands', although calling it 'Holland' is apparently not quite such a grievous mistake as non-Brits mistakenly referring to the whole of the UK as 'England.'

Monday, 14 September 2015

Not potty enough

Surprised to find out that that this wasn't a wholly accurate summary of what the man said? Thought not.
Call yourself an extremist, Corbyn? If I had my way, I wouldn't be pussyfooting around with just one of the armed services. I'd abolish the army, navy AND the air force.

Radicalised by the people of the extreme centre, that's me.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Come where the booze is cheaper

What's going on at the Co-Op? Not at their bank - I've already given up on that particular lost cause. But what's happening at their local convenience stores? Specifically, why the seemingly-random outbreaks of cheap booze?

I'm not talking about your ordinary scheduled special offers or multi-buys - those I understand. What I don't get is the huge number of perfectly good bottles of wine that end up with 'reduced' stickers slapped on them, like day-old prawn sandwiches with massive mark downs so they can be shifted before they're unfit for human consumption. I'm no wine buff, but I do know that most wines can be stored for ages without any problem and are supposed, proverbially, to get better with age. So why the fire sale?

Maybe it's some kind of stock control thing that I don't know about because I've never worked in retail, although I haven't noticed other grocery chains being similarly keen to sell off their old wine stock at such knock-down prices. Not that I'm complaining - just puzzled. But in an increasingly relaxed, mellow sort of way. Cheers!

The eighties: a warning from history? Part 2

Apparently, another warning from history which everyone must heed is that all parties must seek to emulate the Conservative record of economic competence, because There Is No Alternative:
By then [1980], Thatcher's application of Friedmanite principles - restricting the money supply, cutting public spending - was indeed producing results. During her first year inflation surged from 9 per cent to more than 20 per cent; interest rates and unemployment both rose sharply; and Britain's manufacturing industry, the legacy of that energetic nineteenth-century entrepreneurialism  which Friedman and Thatcher so admired, was battered by recession.
From Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

Saturday, 12 September 2015

The eighties: a warning from history?

Only I can stop Jeremy Corbyn dragging Labour back to the 80s.
With the resounding Corbyn win, it's clear that Andy Burnham's warning from history has gone unheeded. Which would be a tragedy, if it really was the lefties wot lost it.

But Alex Nunns, writing in Red Pepper, reminds us that there were a few other things going on in the eighties. In particular, there was an unexpected war coming along just in time to save an unpopular Conservative administration. And this came in the wake of a massive opposition own goal, (the Limehouse Declaration, when a group of Labour right-wingers launched their divisive, doomed bid to create an alternative opposition, a declaration which was probably a better candidate for the title of 'the longest suicide note in history' than the 1983 Labour election manifesto ever was).
...Labour didn’t lose in 1983 because it was too left wing; rather, Thatcher won because of the Falklands War. The ‘Falklands factor’ could not be clearer from opinion polls. Prior to the war of April-June 1982, the Conservative Party was slumped at a consistent 27 per cent throughout late 1981, with a slight recovery in early 1982. But the Tories’ popularity shot up spectacularly with the war, hitting 51 per cent in May and remaining above 40 per cent right through to the general election...

...Before the Falklands, Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister since records began. But immediately after it, in June 1982, she scored the highest satisfaction rating she would ever achieve with 59 per cent approval. Thatcher wrote in her memoirs: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the Falklands War transformed the British political scene… The so-called “Falklands factor”… was real enough. I could feel the impact of the victory wherever I went.’ 
There's no denying that Margaret Thatcher had a good war, which is particularly ironic, given the fact that her government was quite happy to consider ceding sovereignty of the islands to Argentina before and even immediately after, the invasion.

But the Falklands factor isn't a repeatable lesson of history. It was a contained, state versus state conflict, with specific war aims, which ended in a clearly defined victory, the victors enjoying the total support of the liberated population. But these days, there's little prospect of any government winning a khaki election on the back of a clear victory in such an unambiguous state versus state war.

Regardless of the moral cases for or against intervention, it's hard to imagine a similar quick, conclusive victory in, say, the modern killing fields of Syria/Iraq. It's about as different from the Falkands as can be. At the moment, Britain is sort of allied (as a junior partner of the USA) against one undeniably vile group of people, with a sprawling alliance of disparate states and non-state actors, some of whom are almost as vile as the main enemy (Islamic State) and are variously for and against the subsidiary bad guys (the Syrian regime which, inconveniently, is also fighting Islamic State). With the exception of the Kurds, most of our regional 'allies' hate us and each other almost as much as they hate Islamic State, all have different, conflicting war aims and the only thing our non-Kurdish regional allies can agree on is that they really hate the Kurds, who also happen to be the most effective anti-Islamic State ground troops in this whole bloody mess. If there is a sequel ('The Falklands Factor 2 - This Time It's Complicated') , it's almost guaranteed to flop at the electoral box office.

As for the Labour/SDP split, well, history could sort of repeat itself, what with rumours of an anti-Corbyn coup by rivals who didn't like the election result. We could certainly see a re-run of eighties disunity, but that's entirely up to the self-described moderate, pragmatic modernisers - they can choose to wreck the opposition by stabbing the elected leader in the back, or flouncing off in a Limehouse Declaration-style huff, or they could just accept that their party is a broad church and join in with the more important job of obstructing and, preferably, defeating the Tories.

If Andy Burnham and chums don't want to go back to the eighties, I have two pieces of good news for them. First, some of the stuff that went on then isn't coming round again any time soon. Second, you can learn about the things that might come back - disunity and in-fighting - and avoid them by adopting the Gang of Four as your anti-role models. It won't guarantee victory, but it's a damn sight more helpful than the conventional wisdom about the eighties that the Labour right seems to be sharing with the right-wing press.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Say cheese, but don't try to eat the camera

Like somebody who's spent too much time doing repetitive exercises at the gym, the head's a bit out of focus, but the bum's crisply defined. All the same, I quite like this photo, blurry head and all (that's what you get when the subject tries to eat the camera lens).

World, meet Mrs Cluck, one third of our astonishingly prolific egg production team.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Wizards and goblins

In the fantasy world of J K Rowling, He Who Must Not Be Named is an awesomely powerful wizard.

In the fantasy world of Scott Adams, He Who Must Not Be Named (at least in this blog) is an awesomely powerful wizard.

The difference is that J K Rowling knows that Harry Potter's fictional nemesis doesn't really have superpowers (or even exist), but Scott Adams has an actual theory about how He Who Must Not Be Named is really controlling the people of Realityland with the secret power of his dark arts. His theory is quite entertaining. It goes like this:
According to my Moist Robot Hypothesis (that we are programmable meat) and paired with the Master Wizard view of the world, one can imagine a world in which all the big changes in society are engineered by a handful of living wizards at any given time. The wizards, in this context, have learned the rules of hypnosis and persuasion. This knowledge gives them access to the admin passwords for human beings. And they use it.
Apparently, He Who Must Not Be Named (that title's far too long - let's just call him Oink Balloon for short), is one of these Master Wizards, secretly enthralling the muggles with his amazing mind control powers. Except that a lot of people don't like Oink Balloon very much, despite his irresistible magic powers of persuasion. Scott has an ingenious explanation for their otherwise inexplicable lack of enthusiasm:
People seem to have an irrational hate for the wizard that is not entirely explained by the wizard’s actions. Regular readers already know these unusual reactions are signs of cognitive dissonance. Wizards induce cognitive dissonance often, without trying.  
Only in America would you describe people's dislike for a politician with no coherent policies, whose campaign strategy is to crowd his rivals out of the news agenda by sheer repetitive, noisy obnoxiousness, as 'irrational.' Or imagine that such dislike is fuelled by anything more complicated than people getting hacked off with some guy who's behaving like an arrogant jerk. 

But, no, apparently this is good evidence of Oink Balloon's status as a Master Wizard (I don't know about you, but this sounds to me like the Great Man theory of history, recycled by somebody who spent too much time playing Dungeons and Dragons as a kid).

How do we know that Oink Balloon isn't just some random buffoon, but one of the chosen elect who'd definitely qualify for a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Because he's not a politician (politician bad! Boo, hiss!), but a business person ('Political Reporters Cover a Business Candidate' Hail to the Chief Executive Officer! We are not worthy!). And, as a business person, Oink Balloon must command powerful negotiation magic, denied to mere elected representatives of the muggles:
If [Oink Balloon] were a goal-oriented thinker, or a politician, he would be setting himself up for failure. His plan has zero chance of success as it stands.
But [Oink Balloon] is a systems thinker. He plays the long game. Every move is a negotiation.

[Oink Balloon] wants a wall on the border, and he wants Mexico to pay for it. That is such a big ask that few people think it possible. I can only imagine one way a wizard with [Oink Balloon's] skills could convince TWO countries to do this thing that is amazingly hard to get done.

You start with an opening offer that anchors people’s minds to the most outrageous parts of the plan and then you trade those things away until you get the only thing you wanted: the fence. Negotiators (Congress in this case) will feel that a negotiation happened and all parties met in the middle.

But only [Oink Balloon] decided where the middle is. The debate is already over and [Oink Balloon] won. We’re getting a wall.
O rly? A few points to think about:
  • That 'Business Candidate' phrase is doing so much work you can't move for the unexamined assumptions. Like the assumption that Oink Balloon became an insanely wealthy plutocrat because of his status as a uniquely gifted Master Wizard, as opposed, say leveraging his inherited wealth 'through a slew of corrupt sweetheart deals with local and state governments, eminent-domain boondoggles and business alliances.'
  • Another unexamined assumption is that 'business candidate' and 'politician' are separate and mutually exclusive categories, implying that Oink Balloon must be some kind of plain-dealing outsider ready to take on a corrupt political establishment, Mr Smith Goes To Washington-style. In fact the two categories have a lot in common, the intersection in the Venn diagram being Public Relations, that set of techniques by which the corporate and political followers of Edward Bernays attempt (with varying degrees of success) to control the little people by bypassing argument and rational thought and going straight to the irrational, instinctive reptilian part of the brain. Which sounds a lot like Scott's notion that 'we' (i.e. people less clever and wizardy than, say, Scott, or Oink Balloon), are programmable meat, who can be, and are, controlled by the Master Wizards who have hacked their admin passwords. As a method of subverting democracy, PR is as at home on Capitol Hill as it is in the boardroom and about as antithetical to the idea of the plain-dealing outsider as it's possible to be.
  • Speaking of being a 'systems thinker' as opposed to a goal-oriented thinker, how would that work in a democracy? If the candidate doesn't share his or her goals with the electors, how can they agree or disagree with the candidate's undisclosed programme? Or are they just supposed to agree, like the sheep in Animal Farm, that Napoleon should be in charge because 'Napoleon is always right?'
  • The 'systems thinker' phrase seems to be a variation on the Texas sharpshooter gambit - by not defining the goal, or target beforehand it's always possible to paint a circle round the bullet holes you randomly sprayed into the barn door and claim you hit the target. But if we want a meaningful measure of what a great wizard Oink Balloon is, we should define some goals beforehand. Here are three simple metrics to assess the success of Oink Balloon's alleged wizardry. In order of increasing improbability, 1. Oink Balloon becomes the Republican presidential candidate, 2. Oink Balloon is elected President, 3. Oink Balloon persuades the Mexican government to erect, at its own expense, a wall, chicken wire fence, or whatever, to stop its own citizens from trying to enter the Land of the Free and the Home of the Slightly Deranged (as it will be known, in the unlikely event that condition 2. is ever met). If Oink Balloon achieves any one of these, I'll concede that there's something here that requires explanation.
Until then, I should explain, for those of you who haven't recently been reading anarchically silly books to young children, that Oink Balloon was originally the name of a goblin from at least one of the Mr Gum books by Andy Stanton. The rest of the goblins had almost equally impressive names: Soupdog, Funk-Whistle, Captain Ankles, Yak Triangle and Teenage Loaf (Teenage Loaf was the one with thirteen arms and a head shaped like a radiator). In fact, in their competitive attention-grabbing freakishness, the goblins sound very much like the bizarre circus that is the  race for the Republican Party candidacy. If you're so desperate for attention that calling yourself Jeb! with a quirky exclamation mark seems like a good idea, why not go ahead and call yourself Captain Ankles? It makes at least as much sense as anything any of the Republican candidates are likely to say or do. As does this widely-shared video of the candidates' debate from Bad Lip Reading:

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Religious, not spiritual

Religion isn't a dirty word yet but, judging by current usage, it soon will be. The big mainstream religions still boast plenty of adherents, but on-trend believers seem far more comfortable describing their belief systems as 'faith' or 'spirituality', rather than 'religion.' And those with non-traditional supernatural beliefs are notoriously keen to assure anybody who might be listening that they are 'spiritual, not religious.'

In ordinary usage, the words 'religion' and 'faith' refer to more or less the same thing - if you hear about a 'faith group' or a 'faith-based initiative', you know that religion is involved. But 'faith', with its connotation of trust, sounds more positive and 'spirituality' less regimented. Ideal, in fact, for an institution in need of a brand makeover. Misogyny, authoritarianism, child abuse, irrationality, intolerance, violence, groupthink, stifling conformism, prurient prudery, self-righteous moralising, pomposity, sermonising and a succession of very silly hats are just some of the negative associations that the word 'religion' has picked up over the centuries.
In this context, the change of terminology is just a linguistic cleaning product, applied to wipe away a stubborn residue of past misdeeds and mistakes. Religion is reborn as faith or spirituality in the same spirit of euphemistic renewal that saw the Ministry of War re-brand itself as the Ministry of Defence,* Windscale scrubbed up as Stellafield and the institution formerly known as the Inquisition re-invent itself as The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But, if you're being a bit more picky, religion and faith aren't exactly synonymous. Here's part of what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about faith:
mid-13c., faith, feith, fei, fai "faithfulness to a trust or promise; loyalty to a person; honesty, truthfulness," from Anglo-French and Old French feid, foi "faith, belief, trust, confidence; pledge" (11c.), from Latinfides "trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief," from root of fidere "to trust," from PIE root*bheidh- "to trust" (source also of Greek pistis "faith, confidence, honesty;" see bid). For sense evolution, see belief. Accomodated to other English abstract nouns in -th (truthhealth, etc.). 
From early 14c. as "assent of the mind to the truth of a statement for which there is incomplete evidence," especially "belief in religious matters" (matched with hope and charity). Since mid-14c. in reference to the Christian church or religion; from late 14c. in reference to any religious persuasion.
And here's Wikipedia on religion:
Religio among the Romans was not based on "faith", but on knowledge, including and especially correct practice. Religio (plural religiones) was the pious practice of Rome's traditional cults, and was a cornerstone of the mos maiorum, the traditional social norms that regulated public, private, and military life. To the Romans, their success was self-evidently due to their practice of proper, respectful religio, which gave the gods what was owed them and which was rewarded with social harmony, peace and prosperity.
In short, faith is about what you believe, religion is about doing things in the prescribed way. At first sight, this might seem to validate the modern preference for faith, or spirituality, over stuffy old religion with its Pharisaical quibbling over ceremony and outward show. 

But I'm not so sure. Speaking as a nonbeliever, spirituality doesn't impress me much. It doesn't explain anything that isn't better explained by experience, observation and clear thought. Spirituality also seems pretty dull and complacent, being utterly confident that its own superior wisdom gives it privileged access to deeper truths than those obtained through hard-won experience of actual things, or the intellectual effort of trying to understand how stuff works. So you hear spiritual people without the first clue about cosmology announcing that they just 'know' that God caused the Big Bang and that the Big Bang hypothesis itself validates their existing belief system, because holy people already had creation myths long before science (glossing over the fact that the, scale, timescale and sequence of events described in the most influential creation myths bear no relation to anything confirmed by actual observation).

The sheer arrogant incuriosity is breathtaking, considering that spiritual people supposedly exhibit more humility and reverence for mystery than the rest of us. But it's spirituality which claims to answer our deepest questions, unlike 'arrogant' science. As Dara O'Brien said, 'But science knows it doesn't know everything - that's why we still do science.' Which, IMHO, sounds a damn sight more humble than announcing, on the basis of zilch evidence, that you have special access to esoteric knowledge about the most profound mysteries of existence. 

And the idea that there's tons of important stuff out there that nobody knows about, just waiting to be discovered, is way more exciting than the notion that a bunch of self-appointed wise people have already discovered the secrets of everything that's knowable, or worth knowing, if only we'd just pay attention and stop wasting everybody's time questioning things and discovering new stuff.

As a nonbeliever, I have rather more time for what some believers do, rather than what they believe. A lot of the ceremony in Churches, Mosques and Temples may refer to unconvincing beliefs, but some of it is hugely impressive in its own terms - from the sacred music of Bach to the sacred geometry of Mosque architecture.

More importantly, some religious people get together in communities and do socially useful things, either directly, giving time, money or other resources to good works, or indirectly - the very act of getting together as a community or congregation can provide companionship, support and solidarity - the sort of things that make people happy, but haven't been a priority ever since Margaret Thatcher announced that there was no such thing as society, a fitting slogan for our consumerist dystopia, where profit is the measure of all things and there's infinite theoretical choice, but somehow There Is No Alternative.

And, sure enough, some non-believers have picked up the doing part of other belief systems - the religion, not the sprituality - and run with it. The Sunday Assembly, ('a church for people who don’t believe in God') has the following mission statement:
  • Live Better. We aim to provide inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be 
  • Help Often. Assemblies are communities of action building lives of purpose, encouraging us all to help anyone who needs it to support each other 
  • Wonder More. Hearing talks, singing as one, listening to readings and even playing games helps us to connect with each other and the awesome world we live in. 
You could define the 'wonder' bit as more spiritual than religious, but the rest of what's been borrowed here is straight out of religio - people getting together and engaging in practices intended to promote social harmony, peace and prosperity, except, this time round, without the gods.

There are, of course, counter-examples; when religion is good it is very, very good but when it is bad, it is horrid - the inflexible enforcement of petty, random norms without regard for individual differences, or happiness, tedious sermonising, the creation of stupid, tribal divisions between people who do things our way and those who commit the heresy of being different. And I can't help thinking that the Middle East would be a far better place if there were more spiritual, mystical Sufis and fewer inflexible Islamists murdering those who fail to comply with their prescriptive version of what constitutes correct religious practice.

But here in the West, I can see some point in borrowing from the good bits of religion - the community, social interaction, getting stuff done and generally trying to increase the sum of human happiness. What we don't need, I'd say, is more spirituality, more self-absorbed hand-waving, based on repect for the mere unsupported conviction that you're in the right. 

We are already at peak spirituality, now that 'passion' and 'belief' are seen as more important than evidence, knowledge and experience, when it comes to making decisions. So long as you believe hard enough that, say, Iraq was harbouring unspecified Weapons of Mass Destruction, or that the best medicine for a recession-weakened economy is a massive dose of austerity, the sincerity of your faith trumps mere evidence and allows you to carry on regardless of how wildly improbable your assertions are.

And if you're not a Very Important decision maker, an individualised, privatised, spiritual approach to your problems means that you're on your, own, away from the support and solidarity of congregation and community. Which, of course, makes it easier for the few at the top to divide, rule and pick you off, one by one.

If you asked me to choose between spirituality and religion, I'd choose neither of the above. But if you forced me to choose one or the other, with a loaded gun pointed at my head, I'd pick religion, on the grounds that it at least offers the possibility of getting together with other people and getting useful stuff done, where all spirituality seems to offer is complacent self-belief backed up by self-indulgent blather about the ineffable and undisprovable.

*or the US War Department transition to the Department of Defense.