Faith and the law

Tom Chivers of the Daily Telegraph has published an article entitled Religious beliefs should not trump the laws of the land. In it he argues that religious belief should not entitle anyone to break the law as it currently stands, and cites matters such as Sikh knives in school, and the refusal of some Christian counsellors and bed and breakfast providers to offer their services to homosexuals, as examples of the illegitimate use of religion to excuse law-breaking. And he asks rhetorically whether we’d accept human sacrifice from Aztecs, or the stoning of adulterous wives by extreme Muslims, in the name of their sincerely held religious beliefs even though such practices are not exactly lawful. Unsurprisingly, he’s not enthusiastic, and feels fairly secure that none of the rest of us will be either.

In a brief Twitter exchange, in which he at first put forward the principle that “generally, if you live in a country, you should obey its laws despite beliefs”, it soon became clear that it’s not quite that simple. Nazi Germany, and the Ugandan law to bring in the death penalty for homosexuality, both seem to put paid to the “law is king, and kicks religion into touch” argument. The truth is that Tom’s enthusiasm for the rule of law is more honestly stated as enthusiasm for laws he agrees with.

Where I agree absolutely with Tom’s original article is that contrary to ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, requiring those of religious faith to obey the law does not amount to discrimination against them. In fact, such an argument is ludicrous. The idea that there should be exemptions from laws to accommodate religious belief is intolerable. What is not intolerable is the notion that those who in conscience cannot obey a law should be able to break it. And they should endure the legal consequences. Those who, like Lord Carey, seem to think that it’s enough to argue that in this country, where Christian norms have hitherto been legal norms as well, it is thus right to allow exemptions would do well to remember that the Christian tradition of resistance to “wrong laws” is also the tradition of  costly personal sacrifice. Thomas Cranmer did not ask for an exemption from Mary I; he went to the stake.

So those who feel that their bed-sheets should not be soiled by the sexual delights enjoyed between two men should refuse to admit them. And then they should go to court and face justice under the law: they should not cry foul, or claim that they are discriminated against. In their defence, they should publicly state why the law is morally repugnant to them, and see if they can persuade others. They would not persuade me, despite the fact that I too am a Christian, but that’s hardly the point.

I doubt that you could get a fag-paper between me and Tom Chivers on the substantive issues in the specific cases he cites as being ones in which religious special-pleading has no place. But I don’t agree with what I see as the implication, at least, of his piece that there is something illegitimate or dishonourable about those religious people who protest against laws they cannot in conscience accept, and that they should put up and shut up. I’ll bet that if the law in question was one he also believed to be wrong, then he’d be happy to make common cause with Christians or those of other faiths that wanted to resist it. It is as problematic to make a God of the law as it is to claim that one’s own God is above the law.

Andy in Short Shorts

This post is by way of a blatant plug for my brother’s new CD. It consists of his readings of the short stories he’s written over the past few years. I may of course be biased, but I think they’re really very good, and deserve a wider audience.

If you’d like to hear an extract from the CD, you can do so here:

Below is a full list of the CD’s contents, along with the sleeve notes:

The CD costs a mere £7, and if you’re interested in purchasing a copy drop an email to: andyinshortshorts@whatmycamerasees.co.uk with your postal address.

I’ll then send you a PayPal request for the money and get the CD posted straight to you!

“If you want a nigger as a neighbour…”

“…vote Labour!” So ran the Tories’ infamous, but nevertheless successful, election slogan in Smethwick in 1964. Conventional wisdom has it that outrageous electioneering of this kind could never happen now, and that that fact indicates just how far we’ve come in the intervening 45 years. Equally, you’d never now see signs advertising rooms for let that specify “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” as was once common, and this is in turn evidence that the Race Relations Acts have done their work. Seems that you can still pursue a policy of “no gays” if you’re running a bed & breakfast in your own home, and you’re taking your lead from the Conservative shadow Home Secretary, but we’ll let that pass to avoid further embarrassment. But the general view seems to be that overt racism is now the exclusive preserve of extremists, and that, in Nick Clegg’s phrase in yesterday’s leaders’ debate, homophobes are now safely quarantined in the group labelled “nutters”. It’s the race aspect of all this that I’m addressing here, so beyond noting that it seems to be religion that is the only “legitimate” defence against a charge of homophobia, and goodness knows what the defence for the nutters label might be, I’ll leave the issues of sexuality and mental illness for another time.

But what exactly is the distance on race that we’ve travelled in the last 45 years? Officially, and in theory, that distance is a very long way indeed. We have a clear and robust legal framework covering both the public and private arenas. Indeed, race equality legislation is seen as the “gold standard” to which other strands in equality law should aspire, and the current equality legislation is intended to do just that. But in race as in every other sphere in which legal guarantees are clearly expressed, that expression does not in itself tell us much about the prevalence of those things the law is intended to prevent. Tell the thousands of battered women that domestic violence is against the law, and see if it makes them feel any better. But it would be wrong to suggest that all we’ve done is to outlaw racism whilst leaving the reality untouched. There is a genuine revulsion about racism amongst large numbers of people, and their disgust is not simply about being law-abiding. There are many young people who’ve grown up in racially mixed neighbourhoods and whose friendships span racial divides virtually without conscious awareness. This is progress, and it’s not to be sniffed at.

Despite these good things, I remain largely pessimistic about the state of race relations in this country. My pessimism is fuelled not only by my concerns about where we currently are in all this, but by my fears for the immediate future. We know that economically we’re entering into a dark period such as we’ve never seen in the years since the mass immigration of black people in the 1950s, not even in the recessions of the 1970s or 1990s. Economic pressure stresses social relations generally, and the fault lines of race are always weak points at the best of times. The fabled “melting pot” of cultures is just that – a fable. Notwithstanding all the myriad social relationships that cross racial boundaries – at school, at work, at church (sometimes), on the street – it never ceases to surprise me how racially bounded most people’s friendship groups are. Even in the most cosmopolitan of cities, certainly outside the commercial and cultural centre, the day-to-day associations that most people enjoy (in both senses) are within their own racial group. It’s not even as simple as black, or Asian, or white. Within black communities, the African and Caribbean worlds are indeed worlds apart. Within the Caribbean community, small and large islanders frequently do not go to the same clubs or dances. Ask my Guyanese wife which group’s behaviour and norms most irritate her, and she’s quite likely to tell you it’s Jamaicans! What white people glibly dismiss as a single entity, “Asian”, encompasses groups with little in common beyond the historic experience of British colonialism.

These fragmentations within the non-white segment of British society are not just neutral, intriguing differences: they are frequently also contentious and conflicted. Equally, we now have a non-homogeneous white segment that goes beyond the “traditional” division between British and Irish. It seems to me that intra-white distinctions are now largely coincident with language. I sense very little antagonism towards Australians or New Zealanders, but the same can’t be said for relations with Poles and other Eastern Europeans. But this is, I suspect, truly a coincidence. Language may serve to symbolise cultural distance in both a practical and audible sense, but underpinning these various fragmentations and divisions are in fact economic drivers. Eastern Europeans are generally coming from poorer economic circumstances, as did their non-white predecessors, and are thus seen by their hosts to be a means by which their living standards can be driven down.

The current government has talked a lot about “social cohesion”. Unfortunately there is very little evidence that they’ve been very successful in achieving any. This goes beyond racial and cultural boundaries, and lack of social cohesion between rich and poor is at least as urgent a problem as that between black and white. In fact, it is economics that is the ultimate driver for all these social stresses. We may no longer accept “no niggers” as a legitimate way of talking in the formal context, but it takes very little indeed to pull back the thin veneer of compliance with our new social mores. When my wife is in her car and remonstrates with a fellow driver who’s just cut her up, there’s a very real likelihood that she’ll be told, yet again, to “fuck off, you black bitch”. This is not just the language of Nazi thugs from the BNP. But it’s not remotely surprising that the BNP’s support is almost exclusively generated from the ranks of the poor, white working class. Although the more successful strata of our society have generally been more assiduous in learning the ropes of “equal opportunity”, at least in public, if that success should be stripped from them in the economic chill to come, don’t bet against them re-discovering past prejudices.

In the past few months, and with much greater intensity now that the general election campaign is in full swing, the big economic question has been about whether the contenders are prepared to be honest about how severe the looming economic storm is likely to be. I’m more worried about whether they’ve given any thought to how they might mitigate the social and racial effects. Labour and Tory governments of the last 30 years have generally taken the view that it doesn’t matter how much richer the rich get just as long as there’s a safety net for the poorest. Whether or not you find that morally repugnant, it’s not a view that can survive the new economic conditions. The purely economic consequences may well pale before the social and, specifically, the racial ones.

Caught between ancient and modern

The Luddite within me frequently wants to rail against modernity. And it’s a craving I all too readily indulge. Whenever I see yet another motorway disfiguring a favourite landscape – or note with virulent regret how “improvement” work on a minor road has rendered it like all the other minor roads with their sweeping regulation curves where once there were idiosyncratic, if heart-stopping, right-angle bends – then I feel moved to let any unfortunate passenger have it with both bitter barrels. Amongst the other freely proffered insights into my grumpy-old-man-ness, they will likely have to endure acid observations about how we’ve sacrificed everything to speed, and how, rather than encourage better driving, we’ve preferred to make it possible to go everywhere at a steady 60mph without requiring any noticeable degree of skill.

And don’t run away with the impression that it’s only roads that can elicit such contempt for the modern world. It’s also things that can be seen from roads. Trees cut down for no apparent reason, or yet another hedgerow grubbed up, or some unlovely factory belching out noxious fumes, or blameless front doors replaced with vile plastic and fake-stained-glass monstrosities, which might be doubly glazed, but which are also more than doubly philistine. Come to think of it, I really don’t have to be in a car at all: the most innocent news broadcast, or newspaper headline, is sufficient to get me started.

But. It’s quite a big but, actually. There’s just the slightest possibility that I might not be being entirely consistent in this railing against the machine. As it happens, it’s not really a slight possibility, it’s a an odds-on certainty. And rarely has my hypocrisy been brought home to me more vividly than it was on Saturday. You might remember that the Saturday in question was, even in the usually sodden North West, a day of azure blue sky, without so much as a con-trail to obscure its vivid beauty. Iceland’s ash-spewing volcano might have grounded every plane in the country, but it was not impeding the sun’s selfless decision to bless us each and every one, the wicked and the virtuous alike, with its golden generosity. What better thing to do than to find a peaceful tranche of countryside, and go for a sun-drenched ramble? And being a photographer to boot, surely bringing the camera was an obvious additional pleasure. My only problem was that I knew nothing of the countryside around Manchester. Enter my first hypocritical act. A quick search on the Internet, and I was within minutes downloading and printing off a route that would guide me to “both hill and valley”, enabling me to drink in “historical sites of industry, farming and religion”. Yes, that would be the Internet that depends on a vast manufacturing capacity for computers containing all sorts of toxic ingredients, a world-wide network of wire and fibre-optic, and quite a good deal of energy. My first hypocrisy, but by no means my last. Did I mention a camera? I believe I did, and not a box Brownie whose only environmental crime was a rather natty leatherette exterior. No. Mine is a Nikon SLR that sports all the latest, and probably the most environmentally rapacious, ingredients that modern technology can provide.

At this point it would, I think, be churlish not to share some of the results of my endeavours, whilst I continue my mea culpa. Big Cover Wood(This first image is of the ancient beech trees of Big Cover Wood.) Those of you who know what EXIF data is, and have an EXIF viewer installed, might notice that this image has embedded GPS data. So you can locate the exact place where I took this shot, and display it on a Google map. Oh, I see that this is actually not Big Cover Wood at all, but Billinge Wood, a couple of hundred yards further north. Great fun. But this wouldn’t be that much fun if I didn’t possess a GPS attachment for my lovely Nikon. Which of course I do. That is two juicy hypocrisies in one, since my GPS gizmo not only requires all the same naughtily modern paraphernalia as the camera itself, but it would also be rather less effective without the assistance of the United States’ network of military geo-stationary satellites. Somehow, I suspect those satellites didn’t get up there using some special green technology, nor, I have the sneaking feeling, are their components constructed from recycled lentils.Windswept tree And that bête noire of trendy liberals everywhere, the infamous military-industrial complex, seems to be implicated somewhere. (This next photo shows a wonderful example of the way trees interact with the prevailing winds, with buds on the  protected side growing more strongly than those on the exposed side. This is not, as is often supposed, the result of the tree being physically bent over by the wind.) Not that the contradictions of my ramble were restricted to those between technology and nature. These fluffy lambs, exhibiting rather less racial prejudice than can be said of the human race, will I suspect be shortly gracing a dinner plate near you. Or maybe not very near you, since it’s quite likely they’ll be transported a very long distance from their Lancashire field along one of those very motorways that I was making curt comments about only a few paragraphs ago. Black and white(Oh, but they are cute, aren’t they?) Descending from the lambs’ idyllic, if sadly temporary, home I ended up walking along a pretty stretch of the River Darwen, which from this picture you would probably not have guessed was so polluted in the 19th century from the cotton mills that it was notorious for its stench and disgusting colour. Not all progress is bad, evidently. River Darwen(Although you might be able to see that even now, in a nostalgic nod to its seamy past, a stretch of barbed wire on the left bank has captured a delightful array of old plastic bags.) Not far from the river is the village of Pleasington, which sports a Roman Catholic priory (complete with suitable inner glow, it would seem.) Pleasington PrioryIt also sports some quaint weavers’ cottages, but I’d urge you not to get too misty-eyed about the disappearance of craft industries from the modern economy, since in 1818 6,000 weavers felt it necessary to besiege Woodfold Hall, a local manor, to demand an advance on their wages so that they could keep their families fed.

What with one thing and another, my intended relaxation didn’t quite produce the romantic glow I’d been hoping for. To be sure, I enjoyed myself, and drank deeply from the well of bucolic bliss, but I couldn’t prevent these pesky contradictions from insinuating themselves into my consciousness, and reminding me that in fulminating against the modern world, I might just be exhibiting a scintilla of inconsistency.

Canary Wharf tube station

Photography time again, and an abrupt change of mood after the idyllic Thames landscape last time. The extension to London’s Jubilee tube line to East London and Docklands produced some remarkable subterranean architecture, and personally I love its concrete brutalism.

Technical details: Nikon D200 with 18-70mm zoom @ 38mm; F5; 1/13th; ISO 400; hand-held

Canary Wharf tube station

Scientism and our new priests

It’s become rather fashionable,  at least amongst some miffed religious people, to say that atheism is the religion of our age. Particularly in response to the vehement and “missionary” zeal of Richard Dawkins, it’s said that he and his ilk are the priests of this new religion. That, if you will, Dawkins (like Kalou in a previous post) doth protest too much. The argument goes that if Dawkins really believed in the self-evident rightness of his position he would not need so extravagantly to unleash his venom on the religious. Surely religion would wither on the vine under the white heat of his rationalism and logic. All the atheist need do is wait, smirking if he wants to, but he does not need to get so worked up about it. Although I doubt that Dawkins is as rational or as logical as he purports to be, I do not subscribe to this “atheism is a religion” hypothesis. But there is something in modern western culture that does operate in a way that is strikingly analogous to a religion, or at least to a religious ideology. It is what I am calling “scientism”. Not, please note, “science”. The process of scientific enquiry is related to scientism, and provides it with some of its organising principles, but they are two entirely different concepts.

The “-ism” ending indicates that scientism is an ideology, while science is a methodology. The methodology of science is resolutely analytical – it proceeds by breaking things down into bits (often literally) and then trying to understand the chains of cause and effect that link the bits together. And crucially, science tests out those connections by experiments of one kind or another. It is always concerned to isolate the chains into the shortest possible links. It wants to arrive at a place where it can say with confidence that this singular cause has this singular, repeatable, effect. It is necessarily and deliberately reductive. It is also stunningly successful and powerful as a source of understanding and explanation. Provided, that is, that it is directed towards answering the right questions, which for science are properly always questions about what and how. The question, for example, “To what purpose?” is not only meaningless to science, but anathema. Science even has a word for it, and it’s just about the most devastating insult that can be directed at a conscientious scientist: to accuse him or her of teleology. Teleology, unfortunately, is exactly what most people are interested in, and it’s incredibly difficult to avoid it in normal speech. The most innocent-sounding statement can harbour teleological shame. Some plants have bright flowers in order to attract insects to assist them in pollination. True enough, surely? Not at all. It is true that some plants have bright flowers. It is true that bright flowers attract some insects. And it is true that insects so attracted will often carry pollen to other flowers. But it is not true, and indeed it is totally ridiculous, to suppose that plants deliberately evolved bright flowers with the objective – the purpose – of inveigling insects to pollinate them. We humans are obsessed with purpose, but purpose is the one thing on which science can never legitimately shed any light.

And this is the crux of the danger posed by scientism. Scientism is the notion that scientific enquiry is the only legitimate way to understand the world, and that by extension those things that science cannot elucidate are unimportant, meaningless, irrational, non-existent, or all four. To think about purpose is therefore to delude oneself; to strain after it is wilful disobedience. Well, analogous to sinful, in fact. This is not the only point of connection between scientism and religion. Because science is necessarily analytical and reductive (good things in themselves because of their explanatory power) it also tends to deal with matters that are increasingly not open to observation by the average person. For example, most of us used to know what we should eat, because our mothers (and usually it was mothers) told us what food was good for us. Now we are dependent on scientists to explain what nutrients we need to consume, and to point to the foods that contain them. Or the pills that contain them. Scientists have become scientism’s priests. We can no longer be trusted to decide these things for ourselves, because truth is hidden from our view, and only the priests have access to that truth. And just as in religion, there is often dispute amongst the priests that only other priests can adjudicate. Today’s report on UEA’s school of climate science was just such an example. The inquisitors of the Scientific Assessment Panel found that no heresy had been committed, so we can breathe easy. The point I’m making has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of the UEA’s research (I for one am no climate sceptic, and I’m not suggesting that there’s been any whitewash here); rather I’m drawing an analogy between scientism and religion. Scientism also shares with religion a desire to clear the field of competitive ideologies. It’s no longer sufficient that we believe in scientism’s unquestionable truth: we must not be exposed to temptation from rivals. Although I have no truck with creationism, I do feel uneasy about the way in which some of scientism’s priests want to suppress its very expression. Heresy is every bit as live an issue for scientism as it has historically been for religion.

Religion first began to undermine its credibility, and to open itself to ridicule, when it tried to out-science science. When it tried to portray its myths as if they were analogous to scientific explanations. Scientism will do the same job for science it we’re not careful. Science is by far the best tool for posing and answering questions of what and how that we have ever established. Good scientists know, and take pride in, the fact that science is useless for thinking about questions of why, or of purpose. If science allows scientism to tempt it into trying to out-religion religion, it will do the same kind of damage to its credibility that religion has already done to its own.

There’s crap service, and then there’s Argos Home Delivery

My wife has one of those fridge magnet thingamajigs that asks me, each time I reach for the milk, whether I’ve nurtured myself today. Usually I ignore it with the haughty disdain for Americanised sentimental claptrap that it so richly deserves, but this week I thought I’d try and do myself a good turn after all. So rather than continue to risk the back injury, neck strain, discomfort and inconvenience that stem from using my computer whilst balancing the monitor on one Pickfords removal crate, the keyboard on another, the mouse on yet a third, all the while adopting a precarious lotus-style bodily posture, I thought I’d take the radical step of ordering a desk and a rather swanky “Executive Chair”. Thus far, I think you’ll concede, my analysis of the situation showed a masterly grasp of ergonomics, and the solution I had alighted upon could not have been more exquisitely designed to resolve my nurturing deficit.

But as so often happens, it is the complacency that emerges from a good plan expertly executed that opens one to carelessness and poor judgement. In my case it was the fatal error of selecting Argos Home Delivery as my emporium of choice. I selected the goods after a careful perusal of the necessary dimensions, construction materials, price and those helpful reviews from punters who have boldly gone before you. I clicked the relevant buttons. With gay abandon I permitted my most personal financial details to wing their way across an Internet as yet unsullied by the Digital Economy Bill. I assiduously declined permission for said Argos Home Delivery to bombard my already groaning inbox with yet more superfluous entreaties to buy things I have no need of. Finally, my joy was unconfined when I received a delicately worded, albeit robotically generated, email assuring me that my carefully selected items would be delivered on Thursday 8th April between the hours of 7am and 1pm.

So last night I set my alarm for 6am. I was not going to permit myself to wander bleary-eyed and naked from my shower to greet the delivery driver, since no-one who isn’t contractually obliged to endure such visions should ever be required to do so. By 7am I was as sweet-smelling and as presentable as any reasonably sanguine observer could have wished. The first couple of hours ran fairly smoothly, as I busied myself breakfasting and introducing my stale clothing to an eagerly receptive washing machine. Even the third hour was reasonably tolerable. At the end of it I reluctantly informed my anxious employers that I would need to make a somewhat delayed entrance. They were charmingly accommodating, without even once indicating that they thought I had perhaps had a beer or six too many and was simply playing for time.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth hours were less congenial. I became a little fidgety. Although it cannot be necessary to check the clock more than a couple of times every quarter of an hour, I was finding it obligatory to do so a couple of times a minute. When a mere 15 minutes remained, I could no longer hold myself back from making a call to the customer service department. I dialled. I pressed 1. Then I pressed 3. And then 2. And finally 1 again. This secret code was sufficient to put me in touch with an automated voice informing me that they were unfortunately unable to tell me when within my allocated time slot my delivery would materialise. By now that slot had only a rapidly vanishing 5 minutes to run. So I phoned back, this time pressing 1, followed as before by 3, and then 2. But not 1. Oh no. With an air of desperate defiance I pressed 2! The reward for my temerity was no longer an automated voice, but one with which I could converse.

In hindsight, I think I preferred the automated one. This real voice told me solemnly that they were unable to offer an exact time, and that my delivery would most assuredly arrive, but not perhaps until 6pm. I remonstrated that I had been sent an email telling me that the delivery would occur between 7am and 1pm. That, Sir, was only an estimate! But I mustn’t worry because, despite the unreasonable desire that I had to go to work this afternoon, once they had discovered that the delivery had failed, I’d be able to ring them back to rearrange it. And how much leeway should I allow for that rearranged delivery? Well, it could happen any time between 7am and 6pm on the day of my choice, not including a Saturday. So I’d need to take another day off work? Yes, apparently Sir would. So why was I sent an email dishonestly telling me that I only needed to wait until 1pm, and on the strength of which I had already taken a half-day’s leave? No, it wasn’t dishonest, heaven forfend, but an estimate. And in any case, I was showing precious little consideration for the delivery driver by not accepting that “things sometimes happen”. Not, it would seem, that those things included much in the way of delivering anything.

So to summarise: Argos Home Delivery service is a load of incompetent cack. More than that, Argos treats its customers as if they were petulant, demanding toddlers. Its customer service stinks. Its desire to assist is non-existent. And it quite clearly couldn’t give a toss. If I’m to get any nurturing, I’ll evidently have to provide it for myself just as the fridge magnet had suggested.