Wednesday, 21 October 2015



I walked along a laneway as the sun was getting low.

Blackened feet – coastal earth; mem'ries wakened; sea breezes blow.

No more children's footprints, neither earnest shouts that sound;

trees, unclimbed, trail melancholy tendrils on the ground.

Though life was hard in these back yards (ends would barely meet)

my ear still hears that “thump” – a football bouncing in the street.

Through gaps in fences barely standing, I'm catching glimpses.

Glimpses of hand-made dreams; sparse flakes of paint not fallen.

Flakes that call “Remember? Remember how the door jammed?”

How we never burned it down!” – “Things we got away with…”

A 'teen's retreat' – skip school! The walls recall: “shoot the breeze”;

“pass the joint”; “Baby please! Please baby, don't you be a tease.”

Gravel crunching underfoot. Recalled: the names; the faces.

Time has passed. Some moved on – enjoying other places.

Others, gone: snuffed out by banalities of nature.

Yet still, my heart is light; my feet – as happy dancing;

but, peering through the branches, it seemed to me as though

I walked along a laneway as the sun was getting low.

(Words Feb 2013. Picture today)

Friday, 16 October 2015

My Elephant is Leaning Both Ways

My Elephant is leaning both ways. At least I think it is, having just read "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Published in 2012, the book is a fascinating look at the way people make up their minds about ethics and social values. It is made all the more fascinating by the fact that it is backed up by a large body of data, which has been collected via a series of field studies, on-line questionnaires, and interviews designed to measure the moral inclinations of people of different ages, different cultures, and a range of different political and religious leanings. This data allows some insightful inferences to be drawn about the evolutionary, instinctive (or, if you prefer, God-given) foundations of human morality. Its subtitle "Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics" gives a good idea of what to expect, but suggests a somewhat narrower scope of subject matter than the book actually covers.

There are three main conclusions drawn, each of which is presented as a central idea in the three sections of the book. The first of these: "intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second" is the basis of the metaphorical Elephant and its imaginary rider - the elephant represents our intuition or gut-responses while the rider represents the intellect, whose job is, primarily, to serve the elephant (and help it avoid obstacles). The metaphor is carried over from a previous book "The Happiness Hypothesis", where as he says:
I described how the rider and elephant work together, sometimes poorly, as we stumble through life in search of meaning and connection. In this book I’ll use the metaphor to solve puzzles such as why it seems like everyone (else) is a hypocrite and why political partisans are so willing to believe outrageous lies and conspiracy theories. I’ll also use the metaphor to show you how you can better persuade people who seem unresponsive to reason
The second conclusion (and section): "There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness" discusses the relatively recent tendency toward reducing moral decisions to whether or not there is any harm being done (consenting adults, in private, etc.) which is the yardstick of ethics for those who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (forming the acronym WEIRD) and is based on the principle which John Stuart Mill had put forth in 1859: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” These principles are central to the laws of most secular democratic societies but it is worth bearing in mind that:
WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature. Even within the West, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and within the United States, the educated upper middle class [...] is the most unusual of all.
The corollary then is that there are many people who are not WEIRD and who see things a little differently. Haidt's research has led him to the conclusion that there are (at least) six innate and universal moral foundations which he lists as:
  1. Care/Harm
  2. Liberty/Oppression
  3. Fairness/Cheating
  4. Loyalty/Betrayal
  5. Authority/Subversion
  6. Sanctity/Degradation
Now you might be inclined to think, if you are as WEIRD as I, that foundations two to six could be rationally subsumed into point one, and I assume we could all pat ourselves on the back for thinking the same way as John Stuart Mill; but the point of Haidt's research is, in short: yes, but you can't so easily convince your elephant. Even among the WEIRD respondents he found that the speed with which people resolved carefully crafted moral dilemmas (presented to them in computer generated questionnaires) demonstrated that the strategic reasoning required to provide a 'care/harm' based explanation for a moral judgement took significantly longer if there was a conflict in one or more of the other areas.

The final section of the book is based on the third conclusion: "Morality Binds and Blinds". In this section we are shown how the data he has collected demonstrates that the relative importance of the six foundations are highly correlated with people's religious and political affiliations. For example the liberal mindset is focussed primarily on the first and, to a lesser extent, the second and third; whereas the social conservative is likely to value all six in roughly equal proportions. These differences make for difficult conversations across groups because the respective elephants are seeing each other as morally reprehensible. And disturbingly, studies conducted on identical twins show that these tendencies appear to be inborn and heritable:
And what’s more, identical twins reared in separate households (because of adoption) usually turn out to be very similar, whereas unrelated children reared together (because of adoption) rarely turn out similar to each other, or to their adoptive parents; they tend to be more similar to their genetic parents. Genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities.
We’re not just talking about IQ, mental illness, and basic personality traits such as shyness. We’re talking about the degree to which you like jazz, spicy foods, and abstract art; your likelihood of getting a divorce or dying in a car crash; your degree of religiosity, and your political orientation as an adult. Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.
This of course leaves about a half to two thirds of that variability to be influenced by persuasion and other 'environmental factors', so let's not get too disheartened!

An unnecessarily large part, as I see it, of the final chapter was taken up with an attempt to justify the long discredited notion of 'group selection' as a mechanism for shaping evolutionary change in order to justify the existence of 'groupishness' in human beings. (Richard Dawkins's brilliant book from 1976 "The Selfish Gene" explains, in layman's terms, why, as an explanation, the idea of group selection both fails and is unnecessary in understanding the origins of group behaviour.) Nevertheless, If the reader is happy to skim over these parts and accept that groupishness is both a thing and explicable, there are some excellent suggestions about how those with a will can train themselves to communicate across the divide of the many ideological groupishnesses and get their elephants to lean together for the benefit of all.

"The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt - read it. (It'll make you think.)

Saturday, 1 August 2015

What In Gods Name?

According to recent estimates (and, of course, Wikipedia), almost 54% of the worlds population consider themselves to be adherents of an Abrahamic religion; this can be broken down into Christians 33%, Muslims 20%, Jews 0.23%, and another 0.2% or so is made up of the combined memberships of the Bahá'í, Rastafarian, Samaritanism, Druze, Mandaeism, and Bábism faiths. Atheist and ‘non-religious’ taken together, at 14%, make up the third largest category in the list (or second largest if the Abrahamic religions are taken together) followed closely by (the only other group to come in above 10%) Hinduism at 13%.
Wait, what? Jews – less than a quarter of one percent? That’s right, besides Israel (at 74%) the only countries in the world where more than one percent of the population is Jewish are the USA and Canada (oh, and lets not forget Gibraltar which, being home to about 600 Jews, holds the Jewishness world record at 2% of its 30,000 or so inhabitants). Inaccuracies inherent in internet sourced demographics not withstanding, a good statistician would be able to present a convincing argument that, with a 95% confidence interval and based on a statistically significant sample size, Jews don’t really exist. Why then should we care what any of them might have to say or what opinions any of them might hold?
Well because, for one thing, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said: No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities.”
And because, more specifically, there is a perception drawn from history that the Jewish people are the canary in the mine of the world’s political fashionswhen the Jews are getting a hard time there is, quite likely, an ideological poison in the air which no one has noticed yet, but will soon be affecting us all.
And because Jonathan Sacks.
He was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013 – he is apparently thought highly of by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, which gives one pause – but nevertheless, he gives the impression of being extremely well read and well informed, fair minded, and certainly able to put his ideas into words with clarity.
And because ...well, why not find out by reading his recent book, “Not In God’s Name”? (I have just read it, having been fortunate enough to be able to borrow a copy from my local library.) Why? Because it is an unflinching and extraordinarily well thought-out look at the origins of religiously motivated violence. Along the way to presenting some thought-provoking suggestions as to how such violence might be made less popular in the future, he leads the reader through a scientifically orthodox description of the evolutionary beginnings of altruism and its role in human social groups; explains the necessity of religion (of some kind) as a first step in allowing groups to establish trust relationships with strangers – thereby allowing communities to enlarge into tribes and nationsthrough to a discussion of the causes and consequences of that religion turning bad, and what can be done about it.
I say unflinching because questions of religiously motivated violence are not side-stepped – too often in these kinds of conversations we hear arguments based on fatuous comparisons: “so you think religion is a cause of violence? Well what about Atheism?” or even the ‘no true Scotsman’ argument: “people who commit violent acts in the name of my religion aren’t true members of my religion.” These arguments are acknowledged and correctly considered to be beside the point by Sacks who, having begun with the long view of human history, examines the factors which cause peaceful religious communities to give rise to violent subgroups, and explains why such groups are ultimately doomed to self-destruct.
The central image that he uses – and which he considers a central theme in the book of Genesis – is the notion of sibling rivalry as seen in the stories of Cain and Abel – the sons of Adam; Ishmael and Isaac – sons of Abraham; Jacob (a.k.a Israel) and Esau – sons of Isaac; and Joseph (coat of many colours) and his brothers – the sons of Jacob. These narratives are extremely important to the sense of identity of Muslims and Jews (and by extension, Christians) who consider themselves to be, either physically or spiritually, the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac respectively, and though there is disagreement about the details of the story at this point, both groups are agreed in considering themselves to be descendants of Abraham. Sacks’s explanation of these stories – which, on first reading, seem to be about division and enmity – shows a deeper meaning in which they are all seen, ultimately, to be about reconciliation; and that when one brother is chosen the other is not rejected; and that each sibling should be content with his own ‘blessing’ without hating his brother. This is an idea which could save many lives and avoid much pointless human suffering if it gained traction among those whose ideologies are stuck in the enmity interpretation.
These are Bible stories which, once explained by the scholar, can be seen to be moral and good without the need for spin and hand-waving, but he also argues convincingly to encourage those of a religious inclination to value the traditional over the literal interpretations of what he calls the ‘hard texts’ of their holy books. These arguments are similar to arguments that we hear from Christians (the Old Testament is superseded by the New) or Muslims (Jihad is about the inner struggle) explaining that the texts remain useful if taken allegorically.
So “Not In God’s Name”? It is thought provoking, it might change some minds for the better, it might even save some lives. It is a good book.
But I have some quibbles.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Abrahamic monotheism entered the world as a rejection of imperialism and the use of force to make some men masters and others slaves.(p4)” 
I’m not convinced.
If this is the case then it would appear to have been a failed project. In fact, the beginnings of these outcomes were first seen in western civilisation during the the periods when, as Sacks points out, religion was being set aside, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, by the secularisation of knowledge, power, culture, and morality respectively (p12-13). The fruits of this secularisation, he tells us are “...unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilisation and are to be defended and cherished.” Now, I understand that Rabbi Sacks is a religious man, and so one shouldn’t be surprised to find him trying to re-inject religion where he sees a weakness (everything looks like a nail when all you have is a hammer, and all that) – but in the follow-on from the above there is, as it seems to me, a cheap shot:
He tells us that secularism and its achievements do not provide ‘meaning’ “do not and cannot answer the three questions …: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”
I think he is mistaken.
If we were to change his “do not and cannot answer” so that it reads “have yet to compellingly answer” then perhaps I might concede this point for the sake of argument, but even so, what are we to make of the 14% or so of the worlds population who apparently feel that they have arrived at sufficiently compelling answers without recourse to religion? He seems to be asserting that, to find meaning, it is necessary to turn away from the rational quest for what is true, and embrace a traditional belief system without regard for whether or not it is true or rational.
The argument for the sake of which I might have conceded is that the resurgence of religious extremism can, at least in part, be blamed on a perceived lack of meaning in ‘modern society’. It is a point well made: religious ideas among people with no sense of purpose are likely to spread like a virus among the unvaccinated. The question it raises though, is how can society as a whole address the question of the human need for purpose, meaning, identity, belonging – how can secular society (producer of “the greatest achievements of human civilisation”) be improved – how can we as a species progress from where we are, so that our common purpose and a shared sense of meaning is strengthened regardless of religious persuasion (or failure to be persuaded). Unfortunately Sacks seems to see secularism as a spent force – a form on its way to extinction – and, a little too eagerly for me, seems to be preparing for another resurgence of religious enthusiasm.
I hope he is mistaken.
He asks: “As Jews, Christians, and Muslims, we have to be prepared to ask the most uncomfortable questions. Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers?” That these questions can be asked at all should be deeply troubling to any rational person, but there is some solace in knowing that a leading authority of the oldest of these traditions can answer them with an unequivocal “No”.
The question which illustrates the essence of my quibble, however, illustrates it by not being asked. It is the most uncomfortable question that can be asked by a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim: “Does the God of Abraham exist?”
I’ll say it again. I think this is a good book. It is a book worth reading for anyone who wants to gain an insight into the religious view of religious violence. It also makes some bold exhortations to the religious which, if taken seriously, have a good chance of encouraging people on the threshold of radicalisation to take a step or two away.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Are You my Brother?

Two stories in the news this morning got me thinking (and sometimes when I’m thinking I have to write things down so that I don’t forget to ‘carry the one’ as it were).
Firstly a story from Norway of human solidarity inspired by religion, which I think, is something to get excited about: – “More than 1,000 people formed a ‘ring of peace’ Saturday outside Oslo’s main synagogue at the initiative of a group of young Muslims. The event in the Norwegian capital follows a series of attacks against Jews in Europe, including murderous terror attacks in Paris in January and in neighboring Denmark last week.
One of the eight independent organizers of Saturday’s event in Oslo, 17-year-old Hajrah Arshad, said the gathering shows “that Islam is about love and unity. ‘We want to demonstrate that Jews and Muslims do not hate each other,’ co-organizer Zeeshan Abdullah told the crowd, standing in a half-circle before the white synagogue. ‘We do not want individuals to define what Islam is for the rest of us.’ ...Ervin Kohn, head of Oslo’s Jewish community, called the gathering in sub-zero temperatures ‘unique.’”
I'm really hoping that label ‘unique’ quickly becomes inappropriate - I want to see more of it. It has the feel of the student sit-ins and anti-war protests of the Vietnam war era which – along with the popular music, books, and movies of the time – has produced several generations whose appreciation for cross cultural solidarity (among other things) has displaced and marginalised the theocratic war-mongering, racism, and (paradoxically) moralising of the ‘old guard’ throughout the Western World.
We are told that targeting ‘disaffected youth’ with jihadist propaganda is the primary recruitment strategy of the terrorist organisations against whom this ‘ring of peace’ stands (and who, by the way, are ‘Young Earth Creationists’ who believe that ‘God’s Plan’ includes an imminent apocalyptic conclusion to ‘His Creation’, and – on the off-chance that the apocalypse is not quite so imminent – world-conquest and slavery for all!)
So if there is to be a group – a movement if you will (and there is good reason to hope that the children of many of these warring factions are mobilising for peace; a quick google for “youth palestine israel peace” returns an encouraging list of titles) – of young people who are proud of their Islamic culture and want to effect a change so that the rest of the world will associate it with human solidarity then I am inclined, provisionally at least, to wish it a fair wind.
The second story is related to the one above:
At the funeral of Omar El-Hussein, the 22 year old responsible for the shootings in Copenhagen “which targeted a meeting on free speech and Islam, and the capital’s main synagogue,” a man who asked not to be named, speaking of those who had come to pay their respects and support the family of the dead man said: “There were a lot of young people that you don’t normally see there… because they knew Omar. Some of them were gang members. They are my brothers too because they believe in Allah and the Prophet Mohammed, but their lifestyle doesn’t have a lot to do with Islam,”
So again even at the funeral of a terrorist there is a cautious distancing between 'whatever it is that the terrorist’s friends believe', or their lifestyles at least, and the Islamic beliefs of the speaker. But the phrase which caught my eye here is “They are my brothers too because they believe in Allah and the Prophet Mohammed.” It is meant, under the circumstances to be inclusive and to extend the arm of brotherly protection and concern to those with whom the speaker feels little moral affinity or kinship, but it inadvertently exposes the divisiveness which, though sometimes only implicitly, seems to be baked into the substance of all religions. That is: “he is my brother because he believes what I believe.”
So whilst human solidarity inspired by religion is a good thing, and extending the arm of friendship to those whom you deem to be in error is a good thing, these are only stepping stones to a greater good. The human race will not reach its full potential until we can all say –
You are my brother because you breathe the same air as me and feel the warmth of the same sun as me; 
You are my brother because the atoms which make up your body are indistinguishable from those which make up mine and they were all forged billions of years ago in the cores of the same exploding stars; 
You are my brother because our fearful and superstitious (and almost extinct) ancestors may well have huddled together in the same African cave before successive generations of their offspring gradually populated the lands between that cave and the places we each call home; 
You are my brother because you feel the same hopes and fears as me; and 
You are my brother because you celebrate my joy and understand my pain.
So yes, let's rejoice when we see human solidarity inspired by religion, but let's not be satisfied until it is recognised – by all – that the greater good is to be found in human solidarity in spite of religion.

(Oh, and don't forget to check out my book)