28 January 2009

Taking your political temperature

About 18 months ago I looked at the test on the Political Compass to see where the US presidential hopefuls stood. All of them, with the exception of Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, were on the authoritarian right. I found I was on the libertarian left, in about much the same place as Nelson Mandela, which is no doubt why I voted for him.

Now Jams O'Donnell at The Poor Mouth: Political Spectrum has found another site, The Political Spectrum, which does much the same thing, but from an American viewpoint.

Here is my result:

My Political Views
I am a left social moderate
Left: 3.86, Libertarian: 0.9

Political Spectrum Quiz

The result was not very much different from Political Compass, but a little less libertarian so not much surprise there.

My Political Compass results were:

Economic Left/Right: -6.50
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.00

Nor is there much surprise in these results on Political Spectrum:

My Foreign Policy Views
Score: -5.73

Political Spectrum Quiz

My Culture War Stance
Score: -2.57

Political Spectrum Quiz

But the tests are like chalk and cheese.

The Political Compass has carefully-worded questions, designed to be clear and unambiguous, and where the answers will actually measure something.

In the Political Spectrum test the questions are biased, tendentious, and very often beg the question, and it is difficult to see what they are trying to measure.

The Political Compass did not give the opportunity for a neutral answer, but it wasn't needed, because the questions were clear and unambiguous.

The Political Spectrum gave the opportunity for neutral answers, and also gave the opportunity of indicating the importance of the issue. In theory this should make the test more accurate, but in fact I answered most questions as neutral, and of neutral or little importance, because of the bad wording.

I can't remember the exact wording now, without going back and doing the tests again, but one example that struck me was that the Political Compass test asked something like:

Do you think that abortion should be legal for a woman when there is no danger to her life?

whereas the Political Spectrum equivalent version was something like:

Do you think that the state should deny a woman her right to an abortion?

which begs more than one question.

The difference may be because Political Compass is a serious exercise and appears to have drawn on professional expertise in designing the questionnaire and formulating the questions. The Political Spectrum one is on a public quiz site, where anyone can post a questionnaire, and there is nothing to prevent the wording of the questions reflecting the biases of the compiler.

But I can't help wondering whether it is also perhaps a reflection of the differences between British and American culture.

And now, with a general election looming, I wonder where our own political leaders stand.

I imagine Jacob Zuma would be a circle in all four quadrants, getting a different result depending on the last person he spoke to.

I also suspect that Patricia de Lille is still closest to my position (and that of Nelson Mandela).

Unfavourable opinions of religions

In my previous post I commented on a survey that asked whether people had a favourable or unfavourable opinion of a religion (in this case Wicca), and said I would be among those who was neutral or had no opinion.

But the question was raised if the people who practised the religion did things one disapproved of, what then?

I disapprove of some practices of some adherents of some religions, but one can't blame a religion for the behaviour of its followers.

Where a practice is something I believe to be wrong or immoral and intimately bound up with the practice of the religion, that is something else, and probably deserves a separate discussion, and is not something that can easily be determined by a survey questionnaire.

Let me give an example of practices that I believe to be wrong or immoral, but which are closely bound up with the practice of a religion.

When Protestant missionaries evangelised the Kikuyu (Gikuyu) people of central Kenya, they strongly disapproved of some features of Kikuyu culture, such as polygamy and female circumcision, and urged the British authorities (Kenya was at that time a British colony) to assist them in suppressing them. They demanded that all teachers in church schools (and all schools for Africans in Kenya were church schools) take an oath against female circumcision. As a result two independent school associations were formed, the Kikuyu Karing'a Educational Association and the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association. The former became affiliated with the Orthodox Church, and the latter with the African Independent Pentecostal Church (for more details, see my article on Orthodox mission in tropical Africa).

Female circumcision (female genital mutilation) was an integral part of Kikuyu religion and culture, but Christianity generally opposes bodily mutilation (Protestant missionaries in China, for example, started the Natural Foot Society to counter the Chinese practice of binding the feet of female children to keep them small). So the Protestant approach was to suppress practices that they regarded as immoral, and to seek the aid of the government in doing so, thus linking mission and colonialism.

The Orthodox Church, however, did not begin with moral denunciations of practices it thought immoral. Polygamists could be baptised, but after baptism further marriages were discouraged. Now, after 70 years, polygamy and female circumcision are not practised by Kikuyu people who are Orthodox Christians, but this was not achieved by a direct frontal attack on Kikuyu culture. The Orthodox approach was that people need first to know Christ, to worship the Triune God, and and then gradually be transformed into the image of God, not by human laws and prohibitions and sanctions and punishments, but by the working of the Holy Spirit.

Female circumcision is still practised in some parts of Africa, and some Westerners still make an issue of it, and those who do are not always puritanical Protestant missionaries, but are often quite secular. They regard African cultures that do such things as barbarous, and, like the puritanical Protestant missionaries, campaign for laws to be passed against them, yet their own cultures practise wholesale abortion, which seems equally barbarous to many Africans (and to many Christians outside Africa). What lies behind it, in the case of both the Protestant missionaries and the secular social reformers, is Western cultural imperialism.

So there are two things here.

One is the behaviour of some adherents of a religion. Is that adequate cause for indicating disapproval of a religion?

Some people cite the Inquisition and the Crusades as examples to show that Christianity is an evil religion that one should disapprove of. But I think it is silly to blame a religion for the behaviour of some of its followers. The Crusades and the Inquisition were products of certain periods of human history, and show that Christians, like other people, sometimes succumb to social forces and sometimes even mistakenly identify these with mandates of their religions. One can say the same of suicide bombings and pogroms and various other things.

In the case of Wicca, it is clear that some Wiccans have created a myth of "the Burning Times", which they have quite deliberately and consciously used to fan the flames of hatred against Christians. Should I therefore disapprove of Wicca? No, because not all Wiccans do this, and some have spoken quite strongly against it. One cannot blame a religion for the behaviour of its followers, unless that behaviour is an integral part of following the religion.

And that brings us back to the second thing. Female circumcision was an integral part of Kikuyu traditional religion and culture, which is why the attack on it by Protestant missionaries was seen as a direct attack on Kikuyu culture and part of a scheme by the colonial government to deprive the Kikuyu people of their land. The Protestant missionaries demanded oaths against female circumcision, and, almost as a counter to that, the Mau Mau movement began demanding oaths to recover the land, and suddenly the Kenya colonial government began denouncing "oath-taking" as the greatest evil of all, and to punish people for doing that, and detaining them if they were even suspected of it.

And this is a point at which I follow the Orthodox missionary tradition, which is not to denounce the religions and cultures of others. All human religion and all human culture is fallen, including my own, and needs to be transformed by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. This can be seen in the missionary instructions of St Innocent of Alaska

On no account show open contempt for their manner of living, customs, etc., however these may appear deserving of it, for nothing insults and irritates savages so much as showing them open contempt and making fun of them and anything belonging to them.

Even if one disagrees with their culture and customs, one can show respect for people. One can disagree with their theology, and can say why one does. as St John of Damascus did in pointing out where Islamic theology differed from Orthodox theology (he regarded Islam as a Christian heresy). But it should be done in an atmosphere of respect. It is fashionable nowadays in some Western to belittle the notion of respect, and to despise it as mere "political correctness", and that is something I think worthy of disapproval!

St Innocent of Alaska also disapproved of the linking of mission and colonialism, when he said,

2. On arriving in some settlement of savages, thou shall on no account say that thou art sent by any government, or give thyself out for some kind of official functionary, but appear disguise of poor wanderer, a sincere well-wisher to his fellow-men, who has come for a single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity and, as far as possible, guiding them to their quest


12. Ancient customs, so long as they are not contrary to Christianity, need not to be too abruptly broken up; but it should be explained to converts that they are merely tolerated.

So tolerance is an Orthodox missionary principle. Some things cannot be tolerated, as contrary to Christianity, such as human sacrifice. In this, I think Fr Thomas Hopko's account of tolerance is worth repeating:

Tolerance is always in order when it means that we coexist peacefully with people whose ideas and manners differ from our own, even when to do so is to risk the impression that truth is relative and all customs and mores are equally acceptable (as happens in North America).

Tolerance is never in order when it means that we remain idle before wickedness which harms human beings and destroys God's creation.

To be tolerant is to be neither indifferent nor relativistic. Neither is it to sanction injustice or to be permissive of evil. Injustice is intolerable and evil has no rights. But the only weapons which Christians may use against injustice and evil are personal persuasion and political legislation, both of which are to be enacted in an atmosphere of respect. While Christians are permitted under certain conditions to participate in police and military actions to enforce civil laws and to oppose criminality, we may not obey evil laws nor resort to evil actions in defence of the good. This means that Christians are inevitably called to suffer in this age, and perhaps even to die. This is our gospel, our witness and our defence.

So generally my attitude towards religions other than my own is one of tolerance. I neither approve nor disapprove of them. I may approve of some of their beliefs or practices, and disapprove of others, but recognise that if these are integral parts of the religion that they cannot be abruptly separated without destroying the whole, therefore I cannot either approve or disapprove of the whole, unless the whole thing is evil or based on evil, and such religions are rare.

I disapprove of the Hindu caste system and sutti, I don't disapprove of Hinduism. I disapprove of Jewish support for Zionism, but don't disapprove of Judaism, and recognise that Zionism is a secular movement, and is no more necessarily tied to Judaism than crusades and crusading and pogroms are tied to Christianity.

There are also some aspects of these and other religions that I might approve of, though that does not necessarily mean that I approve of the religion per se, nor that it would be right for me as an Orthodox Christian to believe and practise them. I used to think, and to some extent still do, that Jack Kerouac's Zen Catholicism was quite cool, but Orthodox Christianity has different, and I believe better, ways of achieving similar ends.

27 January 2009

American Feelings About Wicca

John Morehead reports on a survey of American feelings about Wicca: Morehead's Musings: New Barna Survey on American Feelings About Wicca:
Among those who have heard of Wicca, nearly two-thirds (62%) described it as an organized form of witchcraft. Smaller proportions defined Wicca as a form of Satanism (7%) or as a religious cult (7%). About one-fifth (18%) said that although they were familiar with the name, they knew little or nothing about Wicca.

When asked to express their view of Wicca, 6% held a favorable view (2% very favorable and 4% somewhat favorable), and 52% held unfavorable views (7% somewhat unfavorable and 45% very unfavorable).

Perhaps the most intriguing response was from the remaining 43% who said they did not know what they thought of Wicca or had no particular opinion about it.

I'm a little puzzled about why the last point is so intriguing. If my opinion had been asked I would probably have answered that I had no particular opinion about it.

i would expect practitioners of a religion to have a favourable opinion about it, and I would expect militant atheists to have an unfavourable opinion about it, as they would have about any religion. But what more can one say?

I can see why sociological researchers might want to know, but it doesn't make it any easier to answer the question. Asking questions like that seems to imply that one must make moral judgements about everything, and assign it to categories of good or bad. Is that a peculiarly American thing, I wonder? In various conflicts around the world there seems to be a tendency, stronger in America than elsewhere, to know who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are. In the recent conflict in South Ossetia, for example, some Americans, apparently following what they were told in American media, were absolutely convinced about the good guys and the bad guys, even though it was an area most knew very little about.

As a religion or worldview Wicca doesn't appeal to me, so I'm unlikely ever to become a practitioner. That means my view of it is not favourable, just as it is of any other religion I don't practise. But saying one's view of it is "unfavourable" seems to be heading into dangerous territory.

24 January 2009

Blogging in decline?

It seems that blogging is in decline. According to the MyBlogLog and BlogCatalog thingies in the side bar many people who used to visit this blog no longer do so. Well, that's probably just because I write boring stuff. But it seems to be happening elsewhere as well.

A while ago there was a bold new attempt to provide links between blogs and the mainstream media in the form of Twingly. This would enable one to see at a glance who had blogged about a particular news item, which was quite useful. I hoped it might grow and spread to more newspapers, but the only one that I knew that adopted it was The Times in South Africa, and even they seem to have dropped it now. Perhaps it's the worsening economic situation, and The Times and other media are retrenching. But even if that is the case, the fact that links to the blogosphere are the among first to go is significant. Two years ago people were predicting that the mainstream media were in trouble, that blogging was taking over. Now, it seems, the blogosphere is no longer perceived as a threat.

The process is even more advanced in Usenet newsgroups, where participaation has dropped enormously, and what remains is usually just cranks and fanatics. But beven the bloggers are disappearing, or flocking to join the ranks of twitterers.

So the better our tools for communication become, the less we are able to make use of them.

22 January 2009

New Testament Reading Plan

Father Gregory has posted an interesting New Testament reading plan. Unlike most such plans it doesn't begin on a fixed date, but can be started any time.

Koinonia: Eastern Orthodox New Testament Reading Plan:
This plan was prepared by Esteban V�zquez and is based on the rule for reading the New Testament in the kellia at the Optina Monastery, which prescribed a chapter of the Holy Gospel (89 in all) and two from the Acts, Epistles, and Revelation for every day, with only one chapter from Revelation on the last seven days in order to make up 89 readings.

21 January 2009

Inauguration of US President Barack Obama

We watched the inauguration of US President Barack Obama on TV, and recorded it to watch again in 8 years time if I'm still around.

He made a good speech.

The orchestral music was significant in view of the theme of "change" - Simple gifts. The words were not sung, but for those who know them, they are perhaps significant:

'Tis the gift to be simple
'Tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
and when we find ourselves in the place just right
'Twill be in the valley of joy and delight.

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and bend we shan't be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

Which perhaps signals the end of American hubris. I hope so!

And there seemed to be an atmosphere of hope, similar to the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela here in 1994. It just felt like a similar atmosphere.

Of course hopes can be disappointed, and people perhaps have impossible expectations, which can never be fulfilled. But it's a bit like a wedding, of which Fr Alexander Schmemann said the grace and hope can be lost, perhaps in a single night, but the potential is still there.

20 January 2009

Bye Bye George -- we won't miss you

I suppose half the bloggers in the world will be writing about the departure of George Bush and the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president today, so why should I add my words to theirs when there have probably been far too many words already?

Yet if I'm still around in 8 years time, and if the world is still around in 8 years time, I'd like to look back on this day and see whether what I hoped and feared has come to pass.

I think probably most of the world will breathe a sigh of relief at the departure of George Bush.

There are plenty of other trigger-happy lunatic politicans in the world, willing to commit murder and mayhem for evil, trivial or even completely inexplicable reasons that one can only guess at. But none of them has the miliary weaponry and economic resources that George Bush had at his disposal. The USSR took on Afghanistan, and the result was that the Bolsheviks took a beating. George Bush invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the chickens are only now coming home to roost.

Bob Mugabe in Zimbabwe took a beating in the Congo, and is now taking it out on his own people. He doesn't have the resources to spread anything more than cholera to other countries, thank God. Ehud Olmert bombed Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza this month. Osama bin Laden seems to be reduced to sending enigmatic videos to TV stations every few months.

But we can breathe a sigh of relief. At least George Bush never got round to bombing Iran or Venezuela, as some feared that he might.

Barack Obama is still an unknown quantity.

He has sung the praises of the pudding, but let's see what the first spoonful tastes like. Let's see if he can turn his rhetoric into reality. His rhetoric is good. As some journalists have noted, at least he speaks in complete sentences with comprehensible syntax, though some journalists say they will miss George Bush for his more incomprehensible utterances. As Rehana Rossouw said in The Weekender (17-18 Jan 2009)

I'm going to miss him mostly because he's been a great source of comfort. For 10 years I've been able to take comfort when our political leaders stuff up by telling myself that there is someone in office worse than them.

And I must say I agree. When people knocked Thabo Mbeki and said he was such a bad president, I'd look at the leaders of other countries and realise how lucky we were. George Bush, Tony Blair, Ehud Olmert, Bob Mugabe, Vladimir Putin. Compared with them Thabo Mbeki looked positively angelic, and though he was no more able to restrain Robert Mugabe than George Bush was able to restrain Ehud Olmert he didn't conduct bloody wars against countries on the other side of the globe.

But though I took comfort from the th0ught that people like George Bush were so much worse than Thabo Mbeki, I also can't escape the thought that Barack Obama will be so much better. Even if he doesn't manage to make things better in the short term, unlike Bush, I don't think he will deliberately act to make them worse, by invading Iran, for example.

Whether the promised change we can believe in will materialise I don't know. But for the moment I'm willing to settle for no change for the worse. And much of the threat of that is leaving with George Bush.

But then Jacob Zuma is waiting in the wings.

Chrsitian kitsch

Someone wrote on the alt.religion.christian.east-orthodox newsgroup

Check out the 12 animated GIF images of Jesus given in the link below. Its very hard to find good animated images of Jesus Christ on the web.

Just what we need -- more "Christian" kitsch.

So someone else responded with this one.

Shall we have a contest for the Christian kitsch of the year web side, 2009?

18 January 2009

Voter apathy -- Has floor-crossing been abolished?

Today I passed a poster of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) urging people to register to vote, and that made me wonder about floor crossing.

Floor crossing has been a significant factor in voter apathy, and I know many people who saw no point in voting or even registering to vote because one's vote could be nullified within 18 months by members of parliament and other legislative bodies crossing the floor to join other parties.

I have heard rumours that floor-crossing had been or was about to be abolished, and wanted to find out more about it, to see if it was worth registering to vote. I did a Google search, but it was not particularly informative, and the most positive thing it turned up was this:

Floor-crossing to be abolished - South Africa - The Good News:
Floor-crossing to be abolished Monday, 21 April 2008

The government has approved constitutional amendments to ban the floor-crossing of Members of Parliament and Ward Councillors, reports The Times.

The Bills containing the amendments were passed by the Cabinet on Wednesday and are due for publication for public comment before they are tabled in Parliament.

The two Bills are intended to abolish floor-crossing in the national assembly, provincial legislatures and municipal councils, Justice Ministry spokesman Zolile Nqayi told The Times.

It seems there was an intention to abolish floor crossing, but it is not clear whether these bills were actually brought before parliament, and if so, whether they were voted on and passed.

If the bills were indeed passed, and floor crossing has been abolished, and there will be no more crosstitutes, that is indeed good news, but I suspect that the public is largely unaware of it. If the IEC want to encourage people to register as voters, then that is something they need to give more publicity to, otherwise many people just won't bother because that they believe that floor-crossing is still possible, and that their vote is therefore worthless.

So why not mount a publicity campaign to inform the public that crosstitution is a thing of the past (if indeed it is). That might go some way towards restoring faith in our democracy.

17 January 2009

This is England

I've just been watching a flim on TV, This is England.

It was made a couple of years ago, but was set in England in about 1982, during the Falklands War. It's about a boy who is bullied at school and befriended by a gang of skinheads, and begins to hang out with them, and enjoys their friendship, but then an older former leader of the gang is released from prison, and a darker side emerges, as he is an English nationalist, and the gang splits as racism and xenophobia intrude.

I won't say more about the plot in case anyone reading this hasn't seen it, and don't want to add plot spoilers.

But I was very conscious of it being an England I had missed entirely.

I visited England twice. Once in the mid-sixties, when I spent two and a half years there, mostly studying in Durham, but also driving buses in London, described, in part, in another blog post on Swinging London in retrospect. The second visit was about three years ago, much shorter, a three week holiday visiting old friends and relations.

After nearly 40 years there were many changes. One of the most noticable was that in the 1960s there had been an industrial working class. There were factory workers, coal miners and others. Forty years later most people seemed to be employed in service industries.

Nowadays the transition seems to be marked by the jokes on motoring programmes on TV -- about the Japanese failure to make proper motorbikes that leaked oil, or proper cars that broke down.

But the film showed something I had missed, that marked the transition -- the Thatcher years.

I'm sure that the film does not tell the full story of those years, and that there were lots of other things that happened. But during both my visits to Britain there was a Labour government, and it seemed a little bit more sunny and cheerful and optimistic.

I'd be interested in knowing if people who lived through the Thatcher years and saw the film think it is true to life.

16 January 2009

SA savings rate dips below zero

The savings rate has slipped below zero? Why are they surprised?

One thing is certain: a penny saved is a penny lost. If you try to save money, it will dwindle away to nothing.

The Times - SA savings rate dips below zero:
South Africa’s saving rate has dropped from 2.7% in 2001 to a negative rating of -0.5% in the second quarter of this year, the SA Saving Institute said today.

If the SA Savings Institute wan South Africans to save, they must work for the bringing back of the building societies.

Before the building societies went commercial a little over twenty years ago, anybody, but anybody, could open a savings account at a building society with R1.00, and earn interest on it. With R10.00 they could buy indefinite period or fixed period paid up shares, and have the dividends from these paid into their savings account, and accumulate savings, no matter how poor they were. A R1.00 a month subscription share could accumulate over 3 years, and so people could save for a fixed term objective, a holiday, for example, and, of course, in the case of building societies, a home.

But now, since the building societies all turned into commercial banks, anything you put away for a rainy day will be swallowed up in bank charges, and eventually the bank will send you a letter to say that you owe them money.

And it's interesting to see that a lot of the present financial crisis began with mortgages, and that some of the institutions in most trouble in places like Britain have been building societies that became commercial banks.

The present situation favours only the rich, those who can afford to put away enough money so that the dividends or interest received outwighs the bank charges. But for the poor saving makes no sense -- far better to spend it as soon as you get it.

The SA Savings Institute is not just barking up the wrong tree, it's barking in the wrong forest.

15 January 2009

Pro-War is Not Pro-Life! � Thicket & Thorp

Pro-War is Not Pro-Life! Thicket & Thorp:
All the sins against humanity, abortion, euthanasia, war, violence, and victimization of all kinds, are the results of depersonalization. Whether it is “the unwanted pregnancy”, or worse, “the fetus” rather than “my son” or “my daughter;” whether it is “the enemy” rather than Joe or Harry (maybe Ahmed or Mohammed), the same depersonalization allows us to fulfill our own selfishness against the obstacle to my will. How many of our elderly, our parents and grandparents, live forgotten in isolation and loneliness? How many Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian and American youths will we sacrifice to agonizing injuries and deaths for the sake of our political will? They are called “soldiers,” or “enemy combatants” or “civilian casualties” or any variety of other euphemisms to deny their personhood. But ask their parents or children! Pro-war is NOT pro-life! God weeps for our callousness.

A Message from Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America. Read the whole thing here.

14 January 2009

Hattie Carroll's killer dies

In 1964 Bob Dylan released a record album, The times they are a-changin' with the song The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll, about a black barmaid who died after being assaulted by the son of a rich white farmer, who was sentenced to six months imprisonment for his role in her death. Now her killer has died, but his deed lives on in infamy.

William Zantzinger - Telegraph:
William Zantzinger, who died on January 3 aged 69, was the scion of a rich tobacco farming family in Maryland whose drunken, racist assault of a black waitress at a society ball in 1963 ended in her death. He would have subsequently sunk unmourned from view had the attack not come to the attention of a young folk singer, 22-year-old Bob Dylan. As it was he became a notorious and widely-loathed icon of bigotry just as America's civil rights movement came to the boil.

'William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger,' Dylan sang in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

The times they have a-changed, at least to some extent, and at least in part as a result of the songs of Bob Dylan.

13 January 2009

Gaza clash of civilizations gets most media coverage

Though its originator died last year, the media coverage given to the Gaza conflict shows that the "clash of civilizations" thesis put forward by Professor Samuel Huntington is still valid.

The Guardian reported Ugandan rebels kill scores of civilians in Congo and Sudan:
Between last Friday and Sunday, rebel fighters killed 13 people in attacks on three villages in north-east Congo. A spokesman for the Congolese army said tracking the rebels, who are renowned for their bush skills, was difficult due to the lack of roads in the area. The worst attack occurred at Nagero, the headquarters of Garamba national park, where the LRA leader, Joseph Kony, was believed to be hiding. Among the eight victims were two park rangers and the wives of two wardens.

Kony, a self-proclaimed mystic, began his rebellion in northern Uganda against President Yoweri Museveni in the late 1980s, but soon turned on the local population. More than 20,000 people, mostly children, were kidnapped, becoming sex slaves, porters or fighters. At least 10,000 people died, while 1.6 million were forced into displacement camps.

But by far the greater media coverage is given to the intercivilizational conflict in Gaza, whereas the one in central Africa is intracivilizational, and therefore attracts less media attention.

Where there is a local conflict that does not involve different civilisations, there is less interest and participation by other countries – in Rwanda or the Congo, for example. Though other countries have become involved either in supporting one side or the other in the conflict or in trying to bring about peace between the belligerent parties, these are usually neighbouring countries from the same civilisation.

Huntington likened the different civilizations to geological tectonic plates, and predicted that most conflicts, and the most severe ones, would take place on the "fault lines" between civilizations. Gaza is on one of the fault lines, and the north-east Congo is not.

12 January 2009

Darwinism has all the answers - but what are the questions?

When I was an undergraduate I had an argument with a fellow student about racism. He was majoring in botany and zoology, and was convinced that some races were more evolved than others, and was in fact a Social Darwinist. He recommended that I read the works of Ayn Rand, whom I had never heard of before then. He said that if I read her works they would change my mind on the topic.

One result of his argument was that I avoided reading anything by Ayn Rand for about ten years, believing that if they contributed to his ideas, they were not worth reading. Later, when I realised that Ayn Rand's ideas were becoming more influential in the world at large, I did read some of her books to understand what was going on. I believe they contributed to the spread of neoliberalism, for example.

And today, thanks to The Western Confucian, I came across this piece.

Mercatornet: Darwinism 2.0 has all the answers:
The Economist’s contention is that all social policy ought to be framed in evolutionary terms. Otherwise, it is destined to fail. Traditionally, policy has been shaped by philosophy, sociology or even religion. But these are inadequate tools, it says:

They describe, rather than explain. They do not get to the nitty-gritty of what it truly is to be human. Policy based on them does not work. This is because they ignore the forces that made people what they are: the forces of evolution.

Welcome to social Darwinism 2.0. SocDar 1.0 used the ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest to promote racism, eugenics, and robber baron capitalism. What fearsome ideas will emerge from 2.0?

The problem with Darwinism of any hue, at least when applied to society, is that its enthusiasts can cook up an explanation for everything in terms of survival and reproduction, the two pillars of Darwin’s theory. Whatever exists must somehow be necessary for survival, no matter how debased it may seem in old-fashioned moral terms.

This leads to some sticky problems. One of these, for instance, is genocide. Since it exists, it must confer an evolutionary advantage -- which is about as close as Darwinism gets to the old-fashioned notion of ethical goodness. Some evolutionary theorists even think that humans are programmed for genocide and war. Indeed, the old man himself seems to have thought genocide something between a jolly good thing and a regrettable necessity. As he wrote in his other great text, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”

It seems to me, however, that Darwin failed to see the implications of his own theories. Civilisation may confer a short-term advantage, but not really a long-term evolutionary one related to survival. A lot of our "civilisation", for example, is built on the use of fossil fuels, which enable mechanised farming and conveying of food and other goods over vast distances. But what happens when fossil fuels are exhausted? Perhaps civilisation will collapse. In civilised societies the development of optics has allowed short-sighted people to survive and breed. In hunter-gatherer societies, such people would be less likely to survive. And if civilisation collapses, perhaps the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies in the Amazon jungles will prove fitter to survive.

Similarly, in civilised societies medicine has allowed babies with birth defects to survive and breed. There are endless news stories about parents of babies with defective hearts or other organs appealing for money for an operation that will save the life of their child. "Civilisation" does not necessarily confer a survival advantage, in the Darwinian sense.

And Mercatornet goes on to say

While evolutionary thought may shed some light upon why young men commit more murders than any other age group, the far more interesting question is why most of them do not. Human consciousness clearly indicates that man has a spiritual dimension which is not determined by the iron law of survival of the fittest. Even some of the more intelligent Darwinists acknowledge this.

Capitalism as an economic system evolved, without too much thought being given to it. Then some people realised that the system encouraged behaviour that was regarded as immoral on the basis of phlosophy, religion or social values. In response to this various forms of socialism were proposed as alternatives to capitalism. By the 19th century capitalism seemed to have developed into a "dog eat dog" society. For some, it seemed natural, and indeed, for Social Darwinists, it was seen as part of "natural selection". Socialist ideas took many forms, but most were based on the idea that cooperation is a better basis for economic activity than competition.

In some cases the ideas became ideologies, as in Marxism, which was linked to a deterministic philosophy. And in reaction to this, people like Ayn Rand decided to provide an ideology for capitalism, which led to the neoliberalism of today.

From a Christian point of view the problem with all this is that the economic ideologies, of both Marxism and neoliberalism, assert that man ought to be subjected to economic powers. Is that what St Paul was saying when he said "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers" (Romans 13:1)? Or did he also envisage a strouggle against them, as he says in Ephesians 6:10?

Perhaps there is indeed a Kulturkampf, and in the West there is an increasing divergence between Christian values and those of society. But many Christians tilt at windmills, and argue about things like how the world was created, arguing over things like "old earth" and "young earth", yet accept without question the values propagated by the likes of The Economist, showing that they have already capitulated. That is straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

10 January 2009

Of babies and bathwater: English theological and ecclesiastical reformers

A couple of weeks ago I heard the news of the death of John Fenton, who was principal of St Chad's College, Durham, when I was a student there in 1966-68. Now Bishop Alan has pointed to an obituary in The Times: Bishop Alan’s Blog: John Fenton RIP: wonderful man...:
Sad to reflect on the death of Canon John Fenton (Times obit). His gentle presence and sharp thinking sparkled, provoked, healed and stimulated on every level and with every kind of person.
It was good to read the obituary to learn something more of his life after he had left St Chad's, and especially before. He had taught New Testament at Lincoln and Lichfield theological colleges before becoming principal of St Chad's the year before I went there. He later became sub-dean of Christ Church, Oxford.

My first real encounter with him was when I went to tea with him, with a couple of other new students who were graduates of other universities and had come to St Chad's to do the post-graduate Diploma in Theology. One was Graham Mitchell, from New Zealand, and the other was one Barnes, who had studied at Lampeter, in Wales. Perhaps the best way of describing it is from my diary of the time (10-Oct-1966), though it describes his household rather than John Fenton himself, but that was part of who he was:

We had only one lecture in the morning, and most of the rest of the morning I spent cloistered in my room, reading the final part of The Lord of the Rings. After lunch went to have tea with the principal - with Graham and a little bloke called Barnes. John Fenton's wife, Linda, is about twenty years younger than he is. There is a very young baby, which was crying or gurgling most of the time, and a Burmese cat, a very friendly-looking animal - which is apparently pregnant by an alley cat. Linda wanted to know if cats could have abortions, because they didn't want a litter of mongrel kittens. Frank Cranmer came in, and we had a right merry time with this Barnes. He was a graduate from Lampeter, an institution in Wales. Whenever anything was mentioned that was inefficient or nutty about the church, he applauded it loudly. He
appeared to think that New Zealand was still a crown colony, and the idea that New Zealanders no longer thought of England as "home" horrified him. When he acclaimed the startling (to me) and radical revelation that the Bishop of Durham lived at Bishop Auckland, and the Bishop of Jarrow lived in Durham, Linda kicked a box of tissues at him, he was, of course, an arch-Tory, and Frank said afterwards that he probably was a fan of King Charles the Martyr, and wanted the Jacobites to return to the throne. At 4:15 Barnes and Graham Mitchell and I went with the Vice Principal to the Castle for the matriculation of graduate students. We wore academic dress. I had
to borrow a gown, and a hood from Reading, which resembled, in a vague sort of way, the Natal BA hood. The Vice Principal seemed rather suspicious of it. We sat in the huge mediaeval dining hall, and the Vice Chancellor gave a chatty little speech of welcome, and then we all signed our names in the books provided.

I found that John Fenton was a super bloke ("super" was a favourite expression of his), but theologically we were worlds apart. He was a fan of Rudolf Bultmann, who advocated "demthologising" the gospel. He gave me one piece of advice that I thought was very good. He said that when reading books and commentaries about the New Testament, one should concentrate on books that take a strong line, with opinionated authors, rather than the bland "consensus of scholarship" ones. So he always suggested books that took a strong Bultmannite line in reading lists. I preferred to read books like Brandon's one on Jesus and the Zealots, which suggested that if Jesus wasn't a guerrilla leader in the struggle against Roman imperialism, he at least associated with people who were.

One thing that showed the breadth of theological difference between us was when he set me an essay on "Jesus and the demons". I read it to him, and when I had finished, he said "But you haven't told me whether you think demons exist or not." I said I thought that the question whether demons existed or not was a distraction and beside the point. Bultmann would probably have said that demons were a primitive mythological element that must be excised to make the gospel relevant to modern man. But to me arguing about whether they existed or not was a bit like being run over by a bus, and lying there in the road wondering about the philosophical question of whether or not the bus existed. Coming from South Africa, where demonic political powers were oppressing the people in the country, arguing about whether demons exist or not seemed to typify the armchair theology of Europe. British theologians argued about the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but British theologians were not in danger of being hanged for treason by a demonic government, as Bonhoeffer was.

When I got home to South Africa I mentioned this incident to John Davies, then Anglican chaplain at the University of the Witwatersrand, who had also been a student of John Fenton, only at Lincoln Theological College. He said yes, whatever the demons are, the important thing is that Christ has the mastery of them.

It is sometimes said of zealous ecclesiastical reformers that they want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater". But after my two years at St Chad's I came to the conclusion that English theological reformers wanted to throw out the baby and keep the bathwater. And in many ways it was John Fenton who taught me this.

The 1960s were a time of liturgical reform, and in my time at St Chad's we swung from old Anglo-Catholic High Mass to the latest products of liturgical committees and back again, according to the whims of the senior common room (i.e. the college staff). Some of us students objected, and asked for some community discussion on the process, so that our worship could be an expression of the college's life as a Christian community. On one occasion in a sermon John Fenton said that he wasn't sure if he believed in the kingdom of God. We asked then, "If you don't believe in the Kingdom of God, what's the point of going to Matins and Evensong?" "Because yer've got to do it when yer get into a parish" he replied in his emphatic way.

One student went to see John Fenton to express his concern about this. And John Fenton persuaded him that it didn't matter. So the following occasion when there was a Solemn Evensong, on the eve of a major saints day, when students were expected to attend wearing cassock, surplice and academic hood, four of us went in our everyday dress (bright hippie stuff, back in 1968), because, after all, it didn't matter. The principal had said so.

But it turned out that it did matter very much. The next time the vice-principal (a German Jewish refugee from Nazism who had converted to Christianity when he fled to England) took two of us to lead evensong in a Durham mining village, he asked on the way why we had not been wearing wedding garments at Solemn Evensong the previous week. "Because we think it is a new form of circumcision, Father," we replied. He said he disagreed, but did not say much more.

The next time there was to be a Solemn Evensong, we received a message to say that we must be wearing wedding garments, by order.

So at the time of Evensong we left our cassocks, surplices and hoods neatly folded in our places the chapel while we were in the college office duplicating our equivalent of the Ninety-five Theses, which we put in all the places in the college dining room at supper. It was a considerably milder protest than the student power riots in Paris. We weren't ripping up the paving stones or buiilding barricades of burning vehicles. But it was a protest none the less.

And the core of it was that if you throw out the baby (the Kingdom of God), then it makes little sense to keep the bathwater (Solemn Evensong with all the trimmings).

Looking back on my two years at St Chad's, I think that that was the main thing I learnt there -- how to distinguish between babies and bathwater. It wasn't in the syllabus, and I don't think it was what John Fenton intended to teach. But it was what I learned.

When I returned to South Africa, John Fenton wrote to my bishop to say that he couldn't recommend me for ordination, because he couldn't understand me at all, and had no idea what made me tick, and suggested that someone in South Africa should take that responsibility. So, as I said, our theology was galaxies apart, and we both knew it.

But I liked him, and I think he liked me. We wrote to each other over the years and kept in touch in that way. I am glad that I went to St Chad's and I'm very glad that I met John Fenton. He was a very kind and generous-hearted man, not least with people whose theological opinions differed greatly from his. So I say, may his memory be eternal.

08 January 2009

Reality isn't what it used to be

In considering the general topic of "Religion and science" the first question that occurs to me is "What religion? What science?"

Both "religion" and "science" are cultural constructs based on Western modernity. By "modernity" I mean the Western worldview (or "paradigm") shaped by the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Concerning religion, Peter Harrison says in his book "Religion" and the religions in the English enlightenment:

One of the effects of the Reformation was the exchange of an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding. Formerly it had been "no salvation outside the Church", now it had become "No salvation without profession of the 'true religion'" - but
which religion was the true religion? The proliferation of Protestant sects made the question exceedingly complex, and led to the production of innumerable abstracts, summaries and the like of the Christian religion, with confessions and statements of faith, in attempts to arrive at a solution. Thus there was a concern for 'fundamentals', which could therefore bring Christianity into a closer relation with other faiths, if the 'fundamentals' were broad enough to include them. Religions, in the new conception, were sets of beliefs rather
than integrated ways of life. The legacy of this view of "the religions" is the modern problem of conflicting truth claims (Harrison 1990:63-64).

The very term "interfaith" is thus a product of this conception, which is in turn a product of Western history -- the idea of religions as "faiths", that is sets of beliefs.

Harrison (1990:5-6) also points out that, in the West, there were three different understandings of 'nature', which led to three different understandings of 'religion' and 'the religions'.
  1. The natural order is opposed to the supernatural. 'Natural' religion is the result of human sin and stands in opposition to 'revealed' religion. This dichotomy was largely shaped by the Protestant reformers.
  2. An instinct, or the light of conscience (also Bacon, and Kant's 'practical reason'). This view is derived from Renaissance thought and ultimately from Stoic philosophy. In this view the natural is not opposed to the supernatural but complements it.
  3. The light of nature is that which springs from reason, sense, induction and argument (Bacon), which Kant later called 'pure reason'. It was this view that developed as the Enlightenment progressed, and led to 'religion' being investigated in the same way as phenomena of the physical universe.

There were such radical changes in religious orientation in post-Reformation England that there was in effect a diachronic religious pluralism, which led to secularization, and "the comparison of the various forms of Christianity with one another, and shaped to a significant extent the way in which the English were to see other 'religions'. The whole comparative approach to religion was directly related to confessional disputes within Christianity"(Harrison 1990:3).

In other words, the frame of reference for the understanding of "religion" has been shaped by the history of Christianity in Western Europe since 1500. To this extent "religion" is a modern Western social and cultural construct.

For more on the differences between premodern and modern Western Christianity, see my post on The ikon in an age of neo-tribalism.

Like religion, "science" is also a social construct.

In English, more than in other languages, "science" has come to refer primarily to the "hard sciences":, those that use empirical methods of verification, though even in English there is a wider meaning. In premodern times, for example, theology was called "the queen of the sciences". In that sense, "sciences" meant "branches of knowledge". And even today non-English speakers sometimes refer to people writing "scientific articles" and reading "scientific papers" on theology, whereas native English speakers would probably say the articles and papers were "academic" or "scholarly", and reserve "scientific" for the "hard" sciences, like physics, chemistry, botany and zoology. Even social scientists would be thought of as reading academic papers rather than scientific ones.

I am particularly conscious of the language difficulty from the time that I worked in the editorial department at the University of South Africa, which was bilingual in Afrikaans and English. It was a distance-education university, and all study material was prepared in both languages. Some subjects, however, were uniquely bound up with Afrikaans culture, and with white Afrikaner nationalism. One such was Fundamental Pedagogics, which claimed to be the science of education. It was not, its proponents claimed, a philosophy of education, because there can be many different philosophies. It was scientific, and there can only be one science, and so from its lofty scientific pedestal it could sit in judgement on all mere philosophies of education.

In the original Afrikaans the word was "wetenskap" and "wetenskaplike", which are usually translated as "science" and "scientific" respectively. It is the equivalent of the German Wissenschaft or the Russian nauka. Though "wetenskap" can also mean knowledge, Afrikaans also has another word, "kennis", which corresponds more closely to the English term "knowledge". To English-speaking people, however, or at least to English editors, Fundamental Pedagogics did not seems so much like a science as an ideology, and the fundamental pedagogicians, in their claims for their discipline, seemed to be including it among the natural sciences. One could never be sure whether this was a linguistic or cultural misunderstanding, or whether the fundamental pedagogicians were simply snake oil salesmen.

In English, more than in many other languages, "science" has come to be used primarily of the natural sciences. This in itself shows that the term "science" has a meaning that varies from culture to culture. Thomas Kuhn, with his concept of paradigm shifts, emphasised this even more.

Both "religion" and "science", therefore, are cultural constructs, and need to be seen in the context of the culture in which they originated.

Can one say more?

Can one bring religion and science together, and see how religion sees science or how science sees religion?

Harrison (1990:2) says of this

It is evident from the philosophy of science that objects of study are shaped to a large degree by the techniques which are used to investigate them. If we apply this principle to the history of 'religion', it can be said that the very methods of the embryonic science of religion determined to a large extent what 'religion' was to be. It would be expected that 'religion' and the strategies for its elucidation would
develop in tandem. For this reason 'religion' was constructed essentially along rationalist lines, for it was created in the image of the prevailing rationalist methods of investigation: 'religion' was cut to fit the new and much-vaunted scientific method. In this manner, 'religion' entered the realm of the intelligible.

That brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning. Which religion? Which science?

One way in which I saw them brought together was a science fiction story. It introduced me to the concept of scientific paradigm shifts some years before Thomas Kuhn's book on the subject was published. I've sometimes wondered if Kuhn read the story, and whether it perhaps gave him the germ of an idea. Or perhaps both his thesis and the story grew out of the same Zeitgeist.

The story was The new reality by Charles L. Harness, first published in 1950 (ie 12 years before Kuhn's The structure of scientific revolutions).

The story concerns a group of scientist who are investigating a theory that paradigm shifts were not just changes in human consciousness, but that the world itself actually changed each time there was a paradigm shift. When the paradigm was that the sun revolved around the earth, the sun really had revolved around the earth, and when the paradigm changed, the earth began to orbit the sun.

To test this thesis, they want to break down the current paradigm, the Einsteinian one, which is based on the speed of light. They construct an apparatus (remember the Large Hadron Collider?) that will let through exactly one photon of light and direct it at a prism set at exactly 45 degrees. When a rat in a laboratory maze is faced with a fork in the path, so that it doesn't know whether to go left or right, it hesitates. So the photon, on encountering the prism, would hesitate for a split second before deciding whether to reflect or refract. That would slow down the speed of light on which the Einsteinian paradigm is based.

The apparatus was constructed, and the machine was switched on. One of the male laboratory staff suddenly found himself naked in a garden. The laboratory and everything in it had vanished. A female colleague, likewise naked, approached him through the trees, offering him an apple.



Anderson, Walter Truett. 1990. Reality isn't what it used to be. San Francisco: Harper.
Harness, Charles L. 1998. An ornament to his profession. NESFA Press.
Harrison, Peter. 1990. "Religion" and the religions in the English Enlightenment. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. The structure of scientific revolutions.

This post is part of an interfaith synchroblog on "Religion and science".

Here are links to other synchronised blog posts on this general topic:

04 January 2009

Stuff that doesn't work

It seems that I'm not the only one finding problems with (see Notes from underground: Ping Technorati, Ping Technorati).

Anali's First Amendment: Ping Me Please!:
I've been trying to get Technorati to ping my blog for 18 days now and it still won't do it.

Apparently this has been a problem for many people, since PING is a huge topic in their support section. Hopefully they'll fix this soon.

For this blog, the Technorati site shows:

Notes from underground Last Pinged 25 days ago

and another blog (updated yesterday)

Khanya Last Pinged 11 days ago

And for some of my other blogs it's been even longer.

And if the problem is as widespread as it seems to be, then it means that other sites that use Technorati rankings and "authority", like Amatomu, are relying on incomplete and inaccurate data when they rank South African blogs according to their Technorati rank.

1Adii Freelancer & Business Strategist
| by adii ranked 1288 on Technorati
2Marco's Blog
| by marcog ranked 5831 on Technorati
3Ninja Monkeys!
| by Vaughn ranked 14926 on Technorati
4Online Reputation Management
| by ViperChill ranked 19454 on Technorati
| by hash ranked 20878 on Technorati
6Cape Town Daily Photo
| by kerryanne ranked 25556 on Technorati
7SA Rocks
| by nicharry ranked 28099 on Technorati
8Vinny Lingham's Blog
| by Vinny Lingham ranked 28411 on Technorati
| by Cherryflava ranked 30835 on Technorati
10Web AddiCT(s);
| by rafiq ranked 35747 on Technorati
11The Vegan Diet
| by Vegan ranked 37082 on Technorati
12So Close
| by Tertia ranked 38755 on Technorati
13Skinny laMinx
| by Heather Moore ranked 40190 on Technorati
14Nic Haralambous Writes
| by nicharry ranked 41404 on Technorati
15iMod - Anything & Everything Web
| by Chris M ranked 43057 on Technorati
16Affiliate Lounge
| by dreampunchboy ranked 44457 on Technorati
17Mike Stopforth
| by mikestopforth ranked 47546 on Technorati
| by cati ranked 47970 on Technorati
19Eric Edelstein
| by Eric ranked 51581 on Technorati
| by iScatterlings ranked 56528 on Technorati
| by SteveH ranked 56528 on Technorati
| by Ddavef ranked 60261 on Technorati
23Hunter of Genius
| by MaxKaizen ranked 61585 on Technorati
| by SprayGlue ranked 61585 on Technorati
| by sparrows ranked 64717 on Technorati

The Technorati people are forever fiddling with their pages "look and feel", which makes stuff more difficult to find. If only they put as much effort into fixing the basic functionality, to make things work.

I don't know about other people, but I usually look at Technorati to see what's going on in the blogosphere right now.

Yesterday, for example, I wanted to see who was blogging about Helen Suzman, who died on New Year's day. No one, according to Amatomu (Search for "+helen +suzman " returned 0 results). No point in looking at Technorati, because posts about a January death will only appear there 3-4 weeks later to judge by the ping rate. So in the absence of any posts on the topic, I wrote one on In Memoriam: Helen Suzman.

But of course I should have looked here. That would have told me who was blogging about Helen Suzman now instead of having to wait a month or two for Technorati to catch up.

It's no use for Technorati to play with the bells and whistles. If the piston isn't connected to the wheels because the connecting rod is missing, that engine ain't going anywhere.


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