Saturday, 27 October 2007

weekend opinion columns

Mark Vernon writes in the Guardian that seeing scientific knowledge as limitless erodes our capacity for contemplative wonder. Read Face to Faith.

Christopher Howse writes in the Daily Telegraph about Women alone in Paris and Mecca.

Roderick Strange asks in The Times How many of us have given until we felt the pinch?.

And there is another article: Church’s historic home in the City.

In the Church Times Giles Fraser asks Is secularism neutral on faith or anti-religious?.

And there is a leader column: Unity agreeable to God’s will.

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Comments

I have no time for Giles Fraser's argument. You can be secularist and argue for freedom of religion and none and argue against it, just as you can be in a religion and argue for freedom of religion and none. It is no different. I don't know why he wants to keep making enemies of the secularists.

Posted by: Pluralist on Saturday, 27 October 2007 at 2:18pm BST

Pluralist. You misunderstand me. I am a secularist. I have no interest in making enemies of them at all. Rather, I have no time for an organisation called the National Secular Society. They are mostly not secularists at all: they are agressive anti-religionists who sail under false colours.

Posted by: Giles Fraser on Saturday, 27 October 2007 at 9:03pm BST

I understood Fraser differently, Pluralist.

Fraser, IMO, is talking about the secular *project*. As such, it SHOULD welcome theists and atheists equally, to the task of the separation of Church and State (which is, of course, just as much about protecting the Church---ALL communities of faith---from the State, as the other way around).

However, in Fraser's view, *this* particular secularist project, the NSS, is no longer about secularism, per se. It has excluded the theist side of the equation, and has become ONLY about protecting the State from ALL forms of religious thought---while agitating a smear campaign against all religion (excepting, of course, the religion of atheism!). *

That's not true secularism, and ergo, *this* so-called secular organization is a fraud. Fraser isn't "making enemies of the secularists", rather, he's calling the NSS to be true secularists again.

[* Compare to many Christian organizations---especially in the U.S.---which are ONLY about protecting the (Conservative) Church from the State. They are the other half of this (IMO) inadequate Either/Or. They make a lie of the "protecting the Church" half, moreover, when they go after *progressive* churches (as they did by going after All Saints Episcopal, in Pasadena CA)]

Posted by: JCF on Saturday, 27 October 2007 at 9:36pm BST

Hi Pluralist

Yes there can be broad brush stroking and over generalisations. Yet it doesn't hurt to look at one particular group and pass comment on their models, but it is probably worth adding a caveat that this should not be overgeneralised.

That is a trait that I've noticed Rabbi Sacks is quite good at doing.

After I read Mark Vernon's article, I couldn't help contemplating that similar arguments can also apply to the religious. There are religious souls who can lose the sense of wonder at the complexity and majesty of this level of Creation. These are the kind who often fantasize about the world to come and then advise that we don't have to worry about sustainability, poverty or justice in this world.

That led me to contemplate how religious extremists can actually become more atheistic in their thinking than many atheists.

For example, those who think it is okay to deny souls the right to love and leave a legacy, thus forgetting that they were once foetuses in a womb and thus have a right to life. It's funny how religious souls can think it is okay to tell a sentient being that they are damned and are going to die in hell, yet wax lyrical about the importance and reverence of life that should be protected from conception in the womb.

There is a contradiction where a foetus is seen as holy, yet a born child or grown adult can be seen as dross that can be burned away if it does not flatter their paradigms. If all foetuses are worthy of divine protection whilst in the womb, then they are also worthy of divine protection once they have left the womb.

Posted by: Cheryl Va. Clough on Saturday, 27 October 2007 at 10:49pm BST

I take all the particular points, and I've hardly any time for the National Secular Society either (more sympathy with the British Humanist Association). Nevertheless, presumably they are honourable when the Society calls for freedom of religion and none in wider society as well as being militant for their anti-religion. Are they arguing that the State should actively close down religious institutions or make it difficult for them to operate?

Posted by: Pluralist on Sunday, 28 October 2007 at 3:24pm GMT

Giles
I don't see that the NSS is any less entitled to use that name and pursue its own agenda than the Christian Institute is to do the same kind of thing.

Posted by: Simon Sarmiento on Sunday, 28 October 2007 at 6:44pm GMT

Giles Freaser may not like the National Secular Society, but he has no right to misrepresent it. He makes several points in his article that are mre to do with his prejudices than the truth. And his final attempt to smear the NSS by its association with Pat Condell, who he says is the fvourite of the far-right, is deplorable. Pat Condell did not say that "Muslims have shit for brains" he said that murdering fanatics who happen to be Muslims do. Mr Condell may be vigoroous in his criticism of religion, and I understand why religious people don't like that, but he is not unreasonable iof you listen to him clearly. And he is not a racist.

Let us not forget that the BNP likes to describe itself as a Christina party.

The NSS is a group of secularists arguing for a secular state. Just as, say, Ekklesia is a Christian organisation arguing for a secular state. We want a different kind of secular state, that's all. But Giles Fraser's attack was hysterical and paid little heed to the truth.

Posted by: Terry Sanderson on Monday, 29 October 2007 at 11:46am GMT

"Let us not forget that the BNP likes to describe itself as a Christina party."

Do you really need it pointed out how many atrocities have been committed by avowed athiests? Come on, the implication that the BNP is in any way an example of Christianity is like calling Pol Pot a good example of secularism! I think a problem with secularism is that it tacitly believes evolution to be a steady advancement. Thus, society must go from strength to strength, and the next bit of societal evolution is to get rid of the whole God superstition. That just denies our basic humanity, and it's pretty naive. I mean, we've been evolving for how many thousands of years now, yet are we any better than our ancient ancestors? We still murder, go to war, cheat each other. We're still cruel, heartless, blind to our own bigotries, and on and on. I can't think of one way in which, overall, our society is better than anything that has gone before. Faith in the inevitable success of humanity as it moves ever forward is as naive as anything you might think faith to be. Evolution, even societal evolution, merely adapts, it has no consciousness of direction.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Monday, 29 October 2007 at 6:54pm GMT

"I can't think of one way in which, overall, our society is better than anything that has gone before"

Equality before the law, humane punishments for crimes, equality for women, workers and family no longer being physically and legally owned by patriarchs, education, humane working conditions......I can think of loads! And those countries who do not yet have those aspire to them.

Human nature doesn't change overall, but it's trying hard to tame itself and to put modifying structures around it.

Certainly, as an LGBT woman with a sick child and a resultingly very reduced income I would not chose to live in any other century that's gone before.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 at 8:40am GMT

Erika,
You come up with isolated examples of "good"(quotes to isolate 'goodness' as a thing). I see more an overall balance that hasn't changed. We still go to war, more "effectively" now than ever before. The reasons are still the same. The left knew Bush was lying long before he went into Iraq, that the war would lead to a long costly involvement, weakening America's economy, yet it all happened anyway. Why? Because people in power will pursue power, regardless. That's the Fall, and it hasn't changed one iota since the first monarch decided to atatck an enemy. I can find a negative balancer for evey one of the advances you cite. I honestly don't believe human nature will tame itself. I believe the Fall means we can't. Some of the things you mention aren't true. There is no equality before the law, there are just righteous sounding documents saying there is. Ask any African American, native person, or any other minority group. Humane punishments? We can't recognize women's violence, and have convinced ourselves it doesn't exist. Women's prisons thus lag way behind men's prisons in whatever rehabilitation they offer to violent and non-violent female inmates, often lumping them all together. Equality for women? Find me one feminist who will say that. Workers and family no longer owned, true, but a socioeconomic environment that is still quite toxic to basic humanity, that even co-opts God in the interest of profit. Humnane working conditions? Unless you are a migrant. Some things are considered advances by some, regressions by others. Who's right? Well, 'us' of course. "They" are wrong and must be fought against. These things apply more or less to the US, but similar things could be said about anywhere. We may be doing better in some areas, but overall, I don't think we are.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 at 12:40pm GMT

"Ekklesia is a Christian organisation arguing for a secular state. We [NSS] want a different kind of secular state, that's all." Where, I wonder, is the difference - and is it as inconsequential as this "that's all" might suggest?

Ekklesia does not think that religious bodies/representatives should hold state or legislative power or special privileges in public institutions or the tax regime; we agree with NSS on that. But we very much believe in a plural civil society, open to contributions from the religious and non-religious alike. The NSS, as far as I can see, does not. It wishes to exclude religion as far as possible from every sphere of life (not just governance). It recently approvingly quoted Ted Rall as saying "[R]religion has no place in the public life of a democracy. None." So it doesn't just oppose confessional teaching of religion in publicly-funded schools (that is fair and reasonable), but appears to be against education *about* the phenomenon of religion too; it is antipathetic to chaplains in hospitals (including humanist ones) and labels them "parasites"; it is against broadcasting features like Thought for the Day (even if it included non-religious voices, as we have argued it most definitely should); it does not think religious groups should be able to publicise events in libraries alongside other civil society groups; it wishes to outlaw the wearing of religious symbols in public places; it seems to take the Dawkins view that involving children in religious (though presumably not 'secularist') activities is 'child abuse', and so on. I'd be happy to be proved wrong on all these points, of course. For this is, as Giles suggests, an ideologically anti-religious rather than a neutral agenda.

Terry Sanderson calls Giles' (strongly worded) piece "hysterical". But he does not refute its main contention, and regrettably Terry himself regularly uses extreme rhetoric to attack others. When religious people respond with reason, he regards this, he says, as a sign of weakness and "ridiculous". He has publicly stated that he regards moderate believers per se as sharing “the same beliefs that motivate bombers and theocrats, misogynists and homophobes”, and he says "Rowan Williams’ theology is just as nutty as that of the biblical literalists" - probably not on the basis of a careful assessment of his scholarly output.

As for Pat Condell, people can - if they have the stomach - watch his nasty performance for themselves on this far-right website http://isupporttheresistance.blogspot.com/2007/05/telling-it-way-it-is.html- He goes out of his way to make it clear that it is Islam as a whole he is attacking, not just an extremist version of it. The video is loaded with bigotry and partial or inaccurate statements. Inter alia Condell says “Muslim women in Britain who cover their faces are mentally ill” and talks of Muslim men who are “primitive pigs whose only achievement in life is to be born with a penis in one hand and a Qur’an in the other”. One may technically argue that this is not racism (it's pure coincidence that the great majority so traduced are non-white, presumably), but to call it "not unreasonable" takes some doing. It is puzzling indeed that NSS says it is "pleased to say" that a man with these views is a member of their organisation.

I find all this very sad and I wish it was not the case. I hope the NSS thinks again about the tenor of its rhetoric and the content of its campaigning. I have said this to them directly and I know quite a number of non-religious and secularist people who think likewise. Meanwhile, Ekklesia is pleased to work constructively with a range of humanist and secular groups on common concerns. The world does not have to divide between the religious and the non-religious, in spite of the vigorous attempts by vocal minorities on all sides to suggest otherwise. We can seek a better way.

Posted by: Simon Barrow on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 at 6:13pm GMT

Erika

I applaud your sentiments, do not give up the good fight.

Ford

I can understand your comments - is it cynism, depression? I don't think you want those violent manifestations.

I love the tikkun olam model which advocates that we have to take responsibility for making the world a better place.

In the fight against good and evil, evil tries to do is to tell us it's not worth it, it's all too hard, you'll never solve all the world's problems, every thing you make will be broken later, everything holy will be desecrated. Evil wins when we listen to those whispers and give in, when we become apathetic, when we become whiners, when we nit pick or scapegoat others, when we act on fear, anger or hate.

Faith is not giving in. Faith is trusting that despite all the obstacles, God is good and God will win. Faith is trusting that what we do today is sufficient for today. Sure, I might not have fixed every problem in the world, but at least I worked on fixing at least one today.

Faith is trusting in a loving honorable God who goes to ridiculous lengths to prove that God loves us and wants to be in a positive relationship.

Faith is reading the bible and looking at the amazing healings that happen through pathetic and sometimes even dysfunctional people.

If God can weave such a story through such a bunch of misfits over so many centuries, then God can do some amazing things through misfits cooperating to heal this world.

The Jews did not walk off Pharoah's lands and into the Holy Land, none of those first souls "made it", they died in Exodus. But they left a legacy knowing that their children and descendants would live in holiness in this world.

So too for this generation, we might not live to see the covenant of peace made fully manifest, but we can start walking the highways to holiness and remove the rubble and ferocious beasts that would harm others who would also enter.

We have the gift of free will, we can choose faith and hope and move to heal, or we can choose fear and anger and attempt to block. Personally, I would rather be a healer of the outcastes than a justifier of tyranny.

Posted by: Cheryl Va. Clough on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 at 8:23pm GMT

Ford
"I can find a negative balancer for evey one of the advances you cite."

So can I. But that doesn't negate the good.
Every so often society is swept to new shores by the emergence of new ideas of what might be good.
That that good doesn't always win and not in every part of the world is true. And yet, today we fight slavery knowing it to be wrong. Then it was accepted as right.
Today we know that equal rights ought to be achieved, then it was crystal clear that some people had more God given rights than others.

It's not a fast process and it's not certain to succeed, but that doesn't negate the process or the insights and efforts to put them into practice.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Wednesday, 31 October 2007 at 9:41am GMT

"today we fight slavery knowing it to be wrong"

I'm not saying slavery is right, but societies always believe that their values are inherently right. It was once thought to be horribly dangerous to society to allow individuals to choose their governments, as an example. My point is that, in their day they believed it to be right. The Victorians thought they were at the peak of enlightenment, just like we do of ourselves, yet we look at them as at best quaint. One obvious thing is that the Victorians shared the same horror of sex that we do of death. Don't let your kids see the "limbs" of the piano, but a dead body is perfectly natural. Our society won't even utter the word death, and for us, sex is perfectly natural. A lateral move, not progress. Which of the things that we consider so obviously right today will be considered hopelessly backward in 500 years time? We think it a horrible thing to correct a child's spelling in school, we have a whole different philosphy of teaching language, and it's oh so enlightened, nurturing the child's autonomy and confidence and all that. Other societies would say that having a literate populace is more important than whether or not a 7 year old has a bit of a ding to his self esteem because he is told he can't spell a big word. Who's right? And Empires fall all the time. When ours does, what will take it's place? Who then will be saying that THAT society's values are self-evidently correct, and ours are wrong? Will those values include the justice of hanging people like us at dawn without a blindfold? Sorry, societies come and go, traditions come and go, ideas of what's right come and go. I don't see anything comforting in believing that society inevitably progresses to something better. That's not the way evolution works for species, and I don't think there's evidence it does for societies either. Every society that ever existed has believed its values to be right. We just have a misunderstanding of evolution behind our claim to our particular rightness.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Wednesday, 31 October 2007 at 12:26pm GMT

Simon Barrow of Ekklesia likes to paint himself as Mr Reasonable, Mr Moderate, but goodness me he sure likes to dish out the bile on those who don't support his view of the world.

I admit that I don't think religion is a good thing. Its history speaks for itself. I have, on the other hand, no desire to interfere with the rights and practices of individual believers. Once religion is organised, it becomes unpleasant and then it become sdangerous and oppressive. Tell me a religion whose history does not follow this pattern.

Mr Barrow will say - ah, yes, but we must reform it, not abandon it.

I say, it cannot be reformed. It will always revert to type if it has power.

Individual believers have every right as citizens of a democracy to take part in public life. The NSS will not resist that. Indeed, I voted for Tony Blair twice, despite knowing his penchant for privileging religion.

Simon Barrow is actually a bit of a whinger when people don't agree with him. And then he gets nasty. The fact that Pat Condell is regarded as a hero of the far-right does not detract from the truth of what he says, or from the fact that Bishop Nazir Ali is also admired by the same people for what they regard as his anti-Islamic sentiments. And I repeat that the BNP regards itself as a Christian party.

Posted by: Terry Sanderson on Wednesday, 31 October 2007 at 12:43pm GMT

As I say I prefer the British Humanist Association to the National Secular Society, and some people make a distinction between secularisation and secularism. A secularist can just argue for both, and a religious person for the religion and secularisation.

What about improvement. I'm unemployed, and the money received for basic benefits is derisory. Yet, for the time being, I am reasonably comfortable and the juggling would be to make that so. Not everyone is, of course, and I may not be. When I get interviews, they are carried out both according to rules and hidden practices, and when in work there are beneficial practices and rules, particularly against discrimination and for safety.

Of course some people remain crooked in places and power is power, but this is a better society. At least the UK, Europe, Scandinavia, Australia is... People do change their attitudes.

I don't know about any "fallen nature" - but some of the ambition and greed can turn out to be useful engines, just as some goodness can lead to an absence of developed resources. It's about striking the right balance between humanity and the material.

Some things that are the least worst can be rather good.

Posted by: Pluralist on Wednesday, 31 October 2007 at 4:05pm GMT

Ford

Yes it is true that "Every society that ever existed has believed its values to be right."

However, my observations are that some societies are worth emulating and some are not. Similarly, even within one nation there are golden times and there are dark times.

My love and respect is towards those nations that actually have a bit of humility in their psyche. The ones that can imagine that God wants them to have neighbors, so they don't go off on invading their neighbors or depriving them of the necessities for life so that they can be comfortable in their "blessed" nation.

My affection is for those leaders who have the humility to recognize that "there but for the grace of God" go I/us/our nation and take responsibility for asking the big questions. It's all very nice to have a balanced budget or a significant profit on one's books. But is it moral and is it sustainable? Is the lifestyle being funded reasonably, or is debt being incurred that future generations will have to pay so that the selfish of this generation don't have to compromise their living standards? Are the resources being invested in the things that make the world a better place - education, health, infrastructure, community relations or are resources being skewed towards war, imperialism, bribes and propaganda?

As religious communities - are we acting in the best long term interests of our own citizens and our neighbors? Have we provided for the least of us, or have we completely disenfranchised them to subsidizethe selfish?

Do we foster tolerance, peace, true justice or do we foster elitism, aggression and vilification?

Societies, communities and individuals who do not ask these questions should not be surprised if they live with undue violence, poverty and litigation.

Church communities and leaders who do not ask these questions and are complicit with selfish regimes face a bigger problem - they have shown a fundamental lack of trust in God and doubt God's ability to make manifest an everlasting covenant of peace. They are worst than atheists, because at least atheists refute there is a God. They claim to represent God and then deny God's power and authority.

Read Isaiah 55, God’s word does not return empty, it accomplishes what God desires, we go out with joy and are led forth with peace.

Posted by: Cheryl Va. Clough on Wednesday, 31 October 2007 at 7:53pm GMT

Terry: I'm genuinely baffled that you can read what I have written and say that it is "nasty" or contains "bile". I'm citing things you or the NSS have said and done, and specifying where I agree and where I disagree or have doubts. I'm also suggesting that tarring all religious people with the same brush (or all non-religious people for that matter) is an ideological not an evidential position, and that disagreements about beliefs need not necessarily be a barrier to working together for a world in which the religious and non-religious can co-exist without fear or favour in governance, and work together for justice and peace.

You say the NSS "will not resist" the rights of individual believers as citizens. But that is a fairly minimal statement, and elsewhere you say religion is a purely private matter "for the home and place of worship". The issues I raised were about public agency and recognition in civil society.

Both Christian and other anti-racists have overwhelmingly condemned the BNP. Similarly, Pat Condell's attitudes to Muslims are repugnant, I'm sure, to the great majority of religious and non-religious people. And as you know, Ekklesia, along with others, has both drawn attention to and critiqued some church leaders' statements.

I'm really sorry you feel the need to insult me and question my sincerity. I think that bears out my concern about your use of extreme rhetoric to attack others. I'm happy for people to read our respective contributions, here and elsewhere, and to make up their own minds about their content and tenor. With best wishes, Simon

Posted by: Simon Barrow on Wednesday, 31 October 2007 at 9:12pm GMT

Ford,
of course societies have different ways of doing things, and the pendulum will swing back and forwards.

But whether we correct a child's spelling or not is surely on a different level from whether we see the inherent value in all people or whether we believe we have the right to buy and sell them?

Equating the undeniable progress of equal rights before the law with the fashion of talking or not talking about death or sex is a category error.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Wednesday, 31 October 2007 at 9:46pm GMT

Simon,

Alright, now you've calmed down perhaps we can talk properly.

I think one of the problems with this "tarring all Christians with the same brush" argument is the very thing that I wrote about in the Comment is Free article that so upset you. If the NSS is vigorous in its criticism of what it sees as religious privilege, then you say it is illegitimate because "we're not all like that". That lets the extremists off the hook. Any criticism of them is taken personally by you.

And yes, I personally don't like the idea of "faith". When "people of faith" are shoving it in my face all the time and telling me that the law needs changing to suit their beliefs (several pieces of recent equality legislation, now the abortion law), and when they force their faith on unwilling people (as with pharmacists refusing to dispense the morning after pill)then I feel I have every right to have a go at them. And not in some mealy-mouthed way that permits them to simply brush it off.

Now you will say "we're not all like that". I know that. But that doesn't negate my criticism of people who are like that, and it doesn't stop me criticising the thing that they use as an excuse for being like that.

Pat Condell may be "offensive" to religious people. He makes clear that that is part of his purpose. The reason they find him offensive is because he thinks what they believe is crazy. He is a comedian - it's his job to go over the top. He is not racist and neither - as you try to suggest by association - am I.

Terry

Posted by: Terry Sanderson on Thursday, 1 November 2007 at 7:14am GMT

Thanks for your posting Terry, and the examples you put forward.

It highlights that there is a role for people "outside the system" to look at how "the system" is implemented and whether there are any casualities.

For example, the raped girl who is deprived the morning after pill and given no other avenue to protect herself.

They might make us wince and some of what they advocate we might not like, but they are acting in the interests of more than just Christian sensibilities.

They won't be right on every point, but then neither will we. The dialogues are useful and enable policy makers to identify where a roadblock is occurring so they can work out a path around it.

Posted by: Cheryl Va. Clough on Thursday, 1 November 2007 at 8:43am GMT

Terry:

Distinguishing clearly between people who espouse extremism and people whose outlook is opposed to extremism (and who are also religious, or not, as the case may be) doesn't let extremists off the hook. Failing to do so does.

As for comedians, Eddie Izzard is a comedian who challenges dehumanization. Pat Condell is a man who calls people "pigs", which other people who hate or fear them think is funny. Big difference.

Hugs, S

Posted by: Simon Barrow on Thursday, 1 November 2007 at 10:35am GMT

"the undeniable progress of equal rights before the law"

But this progress has come with an ever growing number of groups "fighting" for their civil rights. People are further and further dividing themselves in the search for a minority definition, "my oppression is more valid than your oppression". People are no longer African-American, now there are those who identify as "Blacktino", having one parent who is African-American, one who is Latino. Such a person is not recognized, therefor is more oppressed than someone who is just black. Some people here in Newfoundland are upset because retailers haven't dropped their prices in view of the soaring Canadian dollar and are crossing the border to buy things like cars, which are a lot cheaper in the US. Car companies have been refusing to sell to Canadians in the US. Now this is pure greed and unscrupulous business practice. A couple here has launched a lawsuit, because they are being "discriminated against." Well, no. They are victims of greedy capitalists, but discrimination? They need to see it that way, because society tells them they don't have a point if they're not discriminated against somehow. "He's being a greedy pig and that's wrong" isn't enough. It has to be "He's being a greedy pig and that violates my civil rights". Look at the spectacle of Christians claiming their civil rights are being violated because they can't insult, berate, and threaten gay people under the guise of "evangelism". They seriously believe they are being victimized. My points are that, as far as I can see, every advance comes with a cost and the balance of "good and evil" for want of a better framework, in society remains the same. Further, our advances are by no means assured. Not only that, but some of what we see as advances are really just approval of our own societal attitudes. There are societal benefits to having free access to abortion for all women. There are also benefits, albeit very different ones, to prohibiting abortion in all but the most eggregious cases. We only do the first and not the second because we have made a subjective judgement about which is better, and like all other societies, have convinced ourselves that our subjective judgement is actually objective moral reality.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Thursday, 1 November 2007 at 1:31pm GMT

Ford,
I don't think I ever said that there is nothing wrong in our societies, or even that human nature has changed. There will always be those who exploit the system, those who don't play fair. The system will be faulty and in constant need of repair.

I'm an optimist at heart. I believe, maybe wrongly, that the liberalisation we have seen in Europe, the US and Canada in the last few centuries brought with it a multitude of benefits. It has also brought new problems - we're really not used to being responsible for ourselves yet, and it often seems as though our young people are struggling desperately to find a moral compass and true self esteem in a rapidly changing world full of uncertainties.
We’re learning to live with our new liberties, we’re making crashing mistakes along the way. Hopefully, society as a whole recognises the worst errors and works towards change. Equally hopefully, society will continue to work towards greater equality for those who are still on the margins, without falling into the trap of seeing every group as potential victims.

But leaving my optimism aside, this conversation started with you saying "I can't think of one way in which, overall, our society is better than anything that has gone before", and I've merely tried to point out a myriad of ways in which our society is better.
I'd also like to refer you back to a thread of last week or so, when we talked about gay discrimination.
You insisted very strongly that you in Canada are not at all discriminated against, compared to the appalling discrimination and oppression Davis is experiencing in Nigeria.
Comparing the circumstances of your life and his - can you really still say that our society isn't better overall than it has been in past centuries?

Posted by: Erika Baker on Thursday, 1 November 2007 at 3:26pm GMT

Well, I was being a bit extreme to make a point, but that was not that in any one area things haven't improved, though that is precisely what I said, sorry to be obtuse. I may be more free than a gay person 100 years ago, but somewhere there is a wrong that balances it out, that's my point. The part of the world I grew up in has undergone huge societal changes in the past 50 years, more than a lot of North Americans would have experienced. My life is materially far better than my grandparents. Yet, the changes that brought the relative improvement in my life have also brought increased crime locally, destruction of much of our traditional culture, massive outmigration that has decimated rural areas, and on and on. So the improvement in my life over that of my grandparents has been bought at a cost that, I argue, balances it off. What's more, you and I can identify things we would think are improvements merely because our society says they are. Abortion rights are one area, there are numerous others. Asian society puts the needs of the many over the needs of the few. We do the opposite. Yet our societal value judgement of the relative betterness of individual freedom over group responsibility is no less of a subjective value judgement than theirs, so who's the more advanced? For me, the death penalty is always and everywhere wrong. For Muslims, it is right, not just acceptable, but right, even Divinely ordained, in numerous areas. Perhaps a bad example, since my belief springs from my understanding of the Gospel, but theirs comes from their understanding of the Qur'an, so who's right? I'm not interested in a game of "my God can beat up your God" with Muslims, so how can I say with any objective validity that I am right and they are wrong?

Posted by: Ford Elms on Thursday, 1 November 2007 at 5:15pm GMT

What an interesting question, Ford. Is all perception of what is good culturally conditioned? I read somewhere that there is a level of abstract "good" that all societies recognise, at least in theory. And all major religions have the sanctity of life and being considerate towards each other at their core.

The way we construct our societies then reflects the regional and cultural different interpretations on how to achieve those core goods (and I know the death penalty is an odd way of achieving those, but Christians grapple with this too!).

I think I'm more concerned about your comment that good is "balanced out" by negative influences, as though there was a direct correlation.
I prefer to see the good in itself as a valid achievement.
Next to that are the "bad", the incomplete, the consequences we have yet to get to grips with.
They don't cancel out the good, nor are they a necessary consequence of it.

Objective validity... by their fruits?
Could that not be true for nations as well as for individuals?
Of course, we might have to define what we consider to be good fruits... I'm back at equality before the law, education, a functioning healthcare system, universal suffrage....but I accept that others might choose other points here.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Thursday, 1 November 2007 at 6:46pm GMT

From Ford's comments, there arises a concern that whining martyr's are not necessarily concerned with the broader communities' best interests but rather pushing their own barrow, possibly at the expense of the broader commnity or its neighbors.

Erika's comments remind us that reforms do not happen by passively acquiesing to existing paradigms and that societies improve by people listening to their small voices of conscience and trying to find ways to solve things.

Jesus' victory has led to two paths (well more than two, but we'll simplify for the sake of this posting). One way infers that grace comes in a prescribed way, guarded by "holy vessels" who affirm who is in and out, and that "the evil one" can easily poach souls along the way so you always have to be shunning the "unclean". The other way is to say that God can't fail, that Jesus sacrifice was a success, irregardless of whether, who or how many priests agree. It acknowledges that the reconciliation came from God and that God intended to cover all of Creation, so only a very few ever end up "out" and they have to work really hard at it, and even they can be brought back into the fold, even if it takes a few millenia.

Remember, we are dealing with the "unseen" here, which includes transcendent forces and consciousnesses that were here before humanity even evolved e.g. the Ancient of Days or Wisdom, and are thus not limited to a short human. The Jews understand this with their understanding of the dynamic between the two Cherubim of the Ark. When their relationship with God and each other is going well, things go well for humanity. When they are squabbling then humanity plays out their problems until the matter is resolved.

If one relies on tit-for-tat exchanges, we can not bring about peace between Muslim and Christian, nor Jew and Christian, nor Muslim and Jew. Peace will not come about by us all becoming "like" each other. Peace will come when we recognise that we've had separate personal journeys and realise we have things to share with each other and stories that are worth hearing.

It becomes like sharing movies, great imagery gets picked up by the others, whilst other movies everyone agrees were mediocre or rubbish get lost in history.

Posted by: Cheryl Va. Clough on Thursday, 1 November 2007 at 8:00pm GMT
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