Against baiting muslims

Recently I have come across numerous instances of muslim-baiting. I use that term to describe the practice where somebody that hates Islam talks or writes publicly about obnoxious passages of Muslim scripture – in the Quran or the Hadiths – and imply that Muslims must either agree with them, in which case they are horrible extremists, or reject them, in which case they are ‘not proper Muslims’.

Aggressive anti-muslim advocates like Andrew Bolt and Pauline Hanson sometimes focus on passages in the Quran or the Hadiths that advocate beliefs or describe actions that are considered abhorrent in modern, liberal Western society – things such as demonising gay people, advocating the slaughter of infidels, endorsing wife-beating, and Muhammed allegedly marrying a six-year old girl.

The anti-muslims seek to confront moderate muslims with this and force them to choose between their religion and their acceptance in society. The argument goes that, if the person endorses those passages of scripture they are a menace to society, but if they do not then they are not a proper muslim, and are being dishonest.

I will come shortly to why that tactic is unfair and dishonest. But first let’s look at what it could possibly be aiming to achieve. Presumably, since the provocateur abhors Islam, they do not want to force the person to move towards the radical extreme of Islam. The only plausible aim I can see in the tactic is the hope that the muslim will suddenly realise what a terrible religion Islam is, reject it on the spot and become adopt a secular or Christian worldview.

How many people do you know that have done that?

I know none, and have not heard of any either. In my experience, human nature is such that, if somebody aggressively attacks something that is a key part of your world, be it your religion, your family, your political persuasion or your football club, you will dig your heels in, forget any doubts you may have had about the thing being attacked, and associate even more strongly with it.

If that observation is accurate, then these attacks, by people claiming to be champions of Western or Judeo-Christian Values (both of which I consider to be misnomers, but that’s a different essay), will just entrench the importance of Islam to immigrant populations. Not only that, but by deriding moderate versions of Islam as cognitively dissonant at best and dishonest at worst – ‘not true Islam’ – they put pressure on moderate muslims to become extremists.

In other words, the results of such mean and ham-fisted efforts by the ‘defenders of Western values’ are the exact opposite of what they would say they are aiming for. Dumb tactics indeed! Tactics that would be cheered on enthusiastically by the fundamentalists of Daesh and Al Qaeda, as they drive moderate peace-loving muslims towards the clutching arms of the terrorists.

Now let’s turn to the fairness of such attacks. Are they consistent with how we treat other belief systems? Do we, in particular, aggressively demand that moderate Christians publicly state whether they endorse the Bible’s advocacy of stoning adulterers (Leviticus 20:10) and disobedient children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and executing gay men (Leviticus 20:13)? Or, if we want to be charitable enough to accept the common view that the Old Testament no longer applies, having been superseded by the New, do we ask them whether they support Paul’s invocation ‘slaves, obey your masters’ (Colossians 3:22) and ‘wives, submit to your husbands’ (Ephesians 5:22), and rejoice in the statements attributed to Jesus: ‘I came not to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34) and ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26) and ‘Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’ (the “moral” of the repulsive Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30).

Turning from Christianity generally, to its largest denomination – Roman Catholicism – are RCs asked to choose between agreeing with the church’s campaign against condom use in countries afflicted with AIDS epidemics on the one hand, and complete abandonment of their religion on the other?

The answer, of course, is No. Neither Roman Catholics nor Christians are treated as dangerous subversives in Western cultures. Sure, there are a few over-excited atheist demagogues that might wish they were, but even when their criticisms are perfectly good ones – such as that it is child abuse to teach children they will burn forever in hell if they don’t believe in Jesus – the people making the criticisms are regarded as extremists, rather than those they are criticising.

I know plenty of progressive Christians – you know, the ones that believe the central message of their religion is to love one another, and that anything in the bible or their church’s teaching that can’t be interpreted to be consistent with that should be ignored. They are generally good people. On average they seem to be no worse than those that don’t subscribe to a belief system with dodgy bits in its older scriptures. As long as they don’t claim that the Bible was dictated by God word-for-word to its writers, and transcribed and translated without error, there is no inherent contradiction in that stance. Their religious belief does not entail a need to live in perpetual cognitive dissonance.

It is good that most non-Christians in Western society display this tolerance towards moderate Christians. It is odd and unfortunate then, that the same tolerance is less often extended to moderate muslims. Forcing people whose religion is a crucial part of their life to choose between becoming a violent extremist and abandoning their faith is bad tactics, uncharitable and just stupid, whether the religion is Christianity, Islam or something else. Perhaps if there were a religion whose central tenet was seriously harmful, such an approach might make sense. We might for instance class Nazism in the Third Reich as a state religion, in which the central tenet is the sacredness of the German fatherland and people, whose triumph over all the inferior races must be secured. In such a case it would be reasonable to try by all reasonable means to persuade people to abandon it. But religions like that are very rare. So rare, in fact, that I had to break my own rule of never using Nazis as an example, because in this case it was the only example I could think of (Sorry, Mr Godwin).

The reason I am writing this is that I have recently seen criticism from ‘the right’ of what it alleges to be double standards on ‘the left’ in defending Muslims on the one hand while criticising Christians on the other. They say the left is hypocritical for criticising hard-line Christians that attempt to impose their views about issues like abortion, same sex marriage and assisted dying on society, while sticking up for immigrants that belong to a religion that the critics say has even harder-line views on those issues.

That criticism is based on a mistake, which is understandable, but which would not be made if the critics would only apply the good old Principle of Charity to their opponents’ arguments – ie to consider the range of possible interpretations of the arguments and choosing the most sensible one, rather than the one that is silliest and easiest to knock down (a straw man).

Certainly I criticise hard-line Christians that try to impose their views on society, for doing that. But I do not argue they should be forced into silence, sent back to where they came from (originally Europe, in most cases), or treated as second-class citizens, denied the right to build places of worship. And I don’t criticise moderate Christians at all for their religion. Yet these same critics want to exclude Muslims from our country and control those that are here, without stopping to ask what their beliefs are or to see whether they keep those beliefs to themselves or impose them on wider society. All that I and others ask for is that Muslims be given the same courtesy that Christians are given – of being judged by what they do and say as an individual, rather than simply by their membership of a group out of which a tiny minority has behaved in a nasty manner.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, July 2019

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Dogma, in religions and other places

Most people are familiar with the dogmas promoted by powerful religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic church, evangelical protestant churches and some branches of Islam. The institutions claim they have sole possession of the truth, direct from God, and that anybody that does not agree is a heretic, someone to be avoided, and who may be punished.

Dogmatism is annoying, anti-social and causes a great deal of misery, both for people growing up under the power of the institution proclaiming the dogma and for some of those that interact with them.

It’s also pretty well recognised. One need only mention religious dogma and heads start to nod. People know what you’re talking about.

Despite the negative connotations the word has for most people, the leadership of the RC church does not object to the term and still uses it as a core part of its teachings. They invented the term, and use it without shame to describe propositions that the church says RCs are obliged to believe. When I was an RC I never thought to ask what happens if one does not believe a dogma. It seemed too impertinent. But now when I research it, the answer that appears fairly consistently across different RC sources is that it is not a sin to disbelieve the dogma, as long as you don’t say so aloud, because that might encourage somebody else to disbelieve it. That would be heresy, which is a grave sin, punishable by an eternity in hellfire. A few centuries ago, the punishment was lighter – a mere burning at the stake.

Although the RC church invented the word ‘dogma’, it is not the only institution to proclaim dogmas. There are plenty of dogmas in evangelical protestantism, and some variants of Islam are heavily dogmatic. Perhaps non-RCs would reject the application of the word ‘dogma’ to their essential beliefs, given the pejorative sense in which the word is mostly used these days. But it would be hard to argue that concepts such as ‘biblical inerrancy’ or ‘justification by faith alone’ are not dogmas for some protestant sects.
It would be a mistake to equate dogma with religion, because most religions are not dogmatic. It is just our misfortune that the three most dominant religions of our world: Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism and Islam have many adherents that assert an obligation to believe the relevant dogmas.

I am not aware of any pre-Christian religion that had obligatory beliefs. Judaism had many rules, but they were about practices, not beliefs. Even for worship, the injunction was to not worship other gods, or idols in particular. As long as you didn’t bow down or offer sacrifices to golden calves or statues of Ba’al, it didn’t matter whether, in the privacy of your own thoughts, you really believed Yahweh was the greatest god. In fact the Torah says nothing at all about obligatory beliefs, so far as I recall. Other pre-Christian religions, like Buddhism, the many variants of Hinduism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism and the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions also appear to set no expectations about their members’ beliefs.

Dogmas appear in places other than religions. Just as some protestants, while abjuring RC dogmas like the Immaculate Conception or Trans-substantiation, insist on their own dogmas, people who are opposed to all religions – the so-called New Atheists – can be as dogmatic as those they criticise. Classic New Atheist dogmas are things like ‘it is wrong to believe anything that cannot be proven to be true’, or ‘for all questions and human challenges, science is the best means to an answer’. For some militant atheists it even seems to be an item of faith that adherence to any religious belief at all must be a sign of stupidity. I know these dogmas because for a while I was a born-again atheist and subscribed to them. I used to listen to podcasts of debates between Christians and atheists about whether God exists, cheering on my side and hoping for the unconditional surrender of the other. Looking back, it seems such an odd thing to do. Neither the debaters nor their supporters in the audience ever changed their views one iota. Each side had their dogmas and stuck steadfastly to them. They may as well have both been shouting into the wind. But really I suppose they were just playing to their supporters. I believe such debates can never get anywhere because it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of a god, and any attempt to do either relies on presuppositions – usually unstated –  that one side will accept and the other will not.

I have not completely forsaken atheism. I am still atheist on Mondays and alternate Wednesdays. But I have forsaken the dogmatism that accompanies the more aggressive variants of atheism.

Dogmas manifest in wider circles than the theological and anti-theological. Other areas where they crop up are philosophy, politics, economics, psychology and sociology. People debate whether there is such a thing as objective morality, whether equality is more important than liberty, whether wealth really does ‘trickle down’ in a capitalist society, and whether most psychological disorders can be traced back to early childhood experience. Debates between evangelical christians and militant atheists seem mild and friendly compared to the vicious passions unleashed in a debate between a Berkeleyan Idealist and a Materialist acolyte of GE Moore about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a noise if there is nobody there to hear it.

I’m not suggesting that none of those things matter. It matters very much what political and economic theories are adopted by governments. They affect many people’s lives. Even some sorts of philosophy have huge effects. One can trace the roots of many important social movements to the ideas raised by philosophers, such as the influence of Enlightenment philosophers on the American and French revolutions. It’s hard to see how the ‘actual existence’ or otherwise of impossibly distant galaxies could affect our lives, but other similarly meaningless topics, such as whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father, have led to wars, the rise and fall of empires and many burnings of people that had the misfortune of siding with the wrong opinion.

The common element of dogmatic claims is not their capacity or otherwise to affect our lives, it is their total immunity to proof, disproof, or experimental testing of any kind.

There is no dogma about the law of gravity, no dogma of quantum mechanics or a doctrine of the periodic table. A good biology teacher will not demand that her class believe that cells of mammals have a nucleus containing bundles of DNA and little packets of RNA. A good mathematics teacher will not demand that the class believe that the method being taught for long division works. The teacher is saying: “Here is a method, or an approach to understanding something. Most people find it useful in getting important things done“. The teacher could add – but generally doesn’t bother – “If you don’t like what I’m teaching and want to go and invent your own method of long division (or theory of the elements), be my guest! I’ll still be here to help you learn this method if you change your mind.

It is both ironic and predictable that the claims about which we humans get most dogmatic are those about which it is least possible to be certain. When there is a high level of certainty – as with Newton’s Laws of Motion – there is no need for dogmatism. You can take it or leave it. More fool you if you leave it. But when there is little to no certainty available, as with doctrines of neo-liberal economics (or, to be fair, Marxist economics), doctrines of the nature of the Holy Ghost, or proofs and disproofs of the existence of god(s), people generally ramp up the dogmatism and turn the volume to eleven. They use dogma and noise to make up for their lack of confidence and inability to provide any concrete evidence for the proposition.

This has led to my strongest philosophical position being anti-dogmatism. No matter what proposition somebody makes, be it about religion, ontology, economics or politics, and regardless of whether I sympathise with the belief being promoted or not, I now instinctively react against it and look to debunk it, if it is made dogmatically. That doesn’t mean I don’t hold any opinions on those topics. I have loads. Some of them – mostly the political ones – I hold very strongly and am prepared to march the streets, donate to a cause and publicly argue to try to persuade people over. But I hope I never get to the stage of believing that I am unquestionably right about something and that those who disagree are unquestionably wrong. That seems a poor way to live. I have sometimes been like that in the past, but I think I am not now and hope I won’t be again. For me, unquestioningly accepting a dogma is the coward’s excuse for not thinking for oneself.

That is my opinion, which I acknowledge may be mistaken.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2019


And She shall reign for ever and ever

It’s a busy time, the end of choir practice. It’s 9:05pm and I haven’t had my dinner. I need to put away chairs, don my cycling safety gear, unlock the bike and whiz back home to look for something to eat. Busy, busy, busy. So one is distracted, right?

And I found myself singing that famous line from the Hallelujah chorus

and She shall reign for ever and ever

Why were you singing that, Andrew? I hear you ask.

Well the chorus had been the last thing we were practising and, you have to admit (if you’ve ever heard it) that it’s very catchy. No wonder that GF Handel was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day.

No, not that, you respond – I mean, why ‘She’? Don’t you know that the official lyric says ‘He’?

Well actually yes, I do know that, which is why I was a little surprised to find that my subconscious mind, after deciding to make me sing that song, had also decided to make me sing ‘She’. I don’t know why it did. I think it may be because there’s a lovely alliteration in ‘She shall….’ that you don’t get with ‘He’.

But then I thought to myself, as I strode in a purposeful and manly manner towards my bicycle, why not She? Where does it say that God has a sex, and that it is masculine?

Now I know what you’re thinking: the Bible and the Quran are both full of He this, He that, Father this and Lord the other. That’s true, but you ask any theologically sophisticated Christian or Muslim whether God has gonads and I’m pretty sure they’ll say ‘Of course not!’ God is much too big and impressive, not to mention invulnerable, to have a collection of soft, funny-looking, easily damaged organs dangling annoyingly between his legs.

I think there are two reasons why male pronouns and nouns are used to refer to God in the scriptures of Middle-Eastern religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), both of which are to do with cultural traditions and have no theological basis.

The first is that ancient Middle-Eastern cultures, like most all other old cultures, including English and American, are patriarchal and use masculine pronouns in all cases except where the person being referred to is definitely female. All sorts of interesting reasons for this can be discussed but, whatever the reason, we cannot doubt that that is the practice. In a sense, ‘He’ is just the way of saying ‘She or He’ in that language tradition. In the modern, progressive parts of the world, we are working to undo those traditions, because of their toxic effect on sexual equality. But that’s a modern phenomenon that occurred centuries after the King James bible, let alone the original versions written in the period 950BCE – 150CE (600-900CE for the Quran).

The second reason is more specific. In those patriarchal cultures, it was assumed that a figure of authority must be male. Yahweh / Allah was the ultimate Boss, so It was described as male, as the notion of a female boss would have just been too incomprehensible – and unacceptable – to consumers of the stories.

Neither of these reasons retain any validity in modern, Western society, so there is no reason to perpetuate the implicitation of masculinity that was adopted at the time of writing. In fact, there are good reasons to actively overturn that implication, as just another undesirable plank in the ugly edifice of male dominance.

There is one other reason that was suggested to me by a Roman Catholic friend, that is more concrete. That is that Jesus was a man. Let’s accept for now the biblical narrative that there was a single man called Jesus of Nazareth, on whom the gospel stories are based, and whose body housed the incarnate spirit of God. Then the worldly container for the spirit of God did indeed have an XY chromosomal pattern, testicles and a penis. But why should that make us think that the immaterial spirit that pre-existed that body, and survived it, also has those things. We are told that Jesus had a beard. Does that mean that the spirit also has a beard?

If God’s plan was to incarnate as a human and preach an important message, It had three options for a body in which to incarnate: as a man, as a woman, or as a human of indeterminate sex. In Palestine CE30, only one of them had any chance of success. Nobody would have taken a woman seriously, and someone of indeterminate sex would likely have been put to death as a perceived infraction of God’s laws. So the choice of Christ (the part of God’s spirit that is said to have incarnated as Jesus) to incarnate as a man was simply an expedient, and says nothing about the sex of Christ.

Christians pray to Christ – the spirit – rather than to Jesus, even though they may say Jesus because it sounds more friendly. Jesus was the incarnated man, and he only existed for about thirty years. It is Christ that the religion says is eternally in heaven, and to whom a Christian prays. And there is nothing to credibly suggest that Christ has a sex.

Are there any other reasons why God should have a sex?

Thinks.

I can’t think of any that aren’t completely silly. One that immediately comes to mind is that God is The Boss, and bosses are more often than not male (although personally I have been fortunate to have had at least as many female as male bosses in my work career, and there is no doubt about who wields the power in the reasonably-happy home I inhabit). We’ve already dealt with that.

Another is that God is portrayed as a Father. But again, the intent of this metaphor (metaphor because It’s not really a father – there is no divine sperm involved) is to convey that God has the same loving, guiding, protective relationship to us that a parent typically has to their child. The scripture writers just wrote Father rather than Mother or Parent because of the language conventions mentioned above.

Any more reasons? No, I’m afraid I can’t think of any.

On the other side, there are excellent theological reasons against attributing a sex to God.

According to 1 John 4:8, God is Love. Does love have a specific sex? No.

According to John 1:1 God is The Word. Do words have a sex? No.

According to the influential theologian Paul Tillich, God is the Undifferentiated Ground of Being. Do Grounds of Being have a sex (provided we don’t differentiate them!)? No.

According to St Thomas Aquinas, God is Pure Actuality. If we distill Actuality until it is pure, does it acquire a sex? No.

According to St Augustine, God is Goodness Itself. Does Goodness have a sex? No.

I can tell you don’t want me to go on, so I won’t.

Right, now that we’re all agreed that God has no sex, what are we going to do about the fact that nearly all the words written and spoken about God attribute masculinity to It?

This is my plan. Please listen carefully.

From now on, whether you believe in God or not, in every reference you make to God that is in a context where use of a sexed pronoun is natural, I want you to use the female form.

As you are all intelligent and attentive readers, you naturally understand that this is not because I think God has a sex and that sex is female. Rather it is that, even if this idea went viral, it would have no hope of balancing out the enormous number of references to God as male that are out there. So we’ll keep on at this until God references achieve sexual parity, and then we’ll think about what to do next. This is not, as Alan Jones or Donald Trump might claim, ‘playing with words’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’. It’s just using sensible language that recognises that women and men are equally human and equally capable of anything except for a very few sex-specific activities such as fertilising an ovum or gestating a baby human. It’s a step that subverts the subtle message that only a man can be a person of power and wisdom. It’s a small but meaningful step in the project of gradually dismantling millennia of male dominance and oppression. And who better to lead such a step than the religions that have historically been – and unfortunately in some cases still are – platforms for those that seek to perpetuate that dominance.

So, if you please, it’ll be:

‘Our Mother who art in Heaven….’, in The Dame’s Prayer.

‘And He shall reign for ever and ever….’

Jesus is the Son of Woman (note the preservation of the word Son for Jesus, on account of the real-life testicles on the body used for Christ’s incarnation).

‘And She looked down on Her creation, and saw that it was good’.

The hymns will need reworking too:

‘Hail Redeemer Queen divine’

‘Queen of Queens, and Dame of Dames’

Everything, except specific references to the body of Jesus of Nazareth, has to go, and be replaced by its feminine equivalent.

What nice, friendly, inclusive places churches will become when this is adopted. I would happily visit them and sing along to ‘God rest ye merry (gentle)women’ in a spirit of ecumenical solidarity.

I don’t want to pick unfairly on Middle-Eastern religions, even though, they being by far the most powerful ones, they can take it. So let’s pause to consider the others.

Non-Middle-Eastern religions seem to generally be less patriarchal than the Middle-Eastern ones. There are powerful goddesses in Indian, Egyptian, Native American, Norse, Greek and Roman religions. But in all cases the boss of the gods is male. Apparently there have been, through the twentieth century, groups of scholars that believed that ancient religions such as druidism worshipped an Earth Mother type deity as their main focus, but these beliefs have fallen into disfavour in academia, and start to look more like wishful thinking of survivors of the Peace and Love generation of the sixties, than historically accurate accounts. The only well-known religions – ancient or modern – in which the most powerful being is female are neopagan religions such as Wicca. Well good for them, I say. But they are a very small minority, and the male dominance of the other religions I mentioned at least lets the Middle-Eastern triumvirate that currently dominates the world off the hook a little.

But Andrew, you protest, you are not a practising Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, so why should you care what words they use to talk about their gods?

You make a fair point, dear reader. The religions towards which I feel the greatest affinity are Buddhism and Vedanta, neither of which have any connection with the Middle East. But although I am not a Christian, Christianity has a major effect on my daily life and the lives of those around me, through the enormous influence that Christian power-brokers have on our laws and social customs. So it is in my interest, and in the interest of anybody that wishes for a kinder society, for the average Christian, as well as the power hierarchies of the various Christian sects, to become more consultative and compassionate. I think the religion becoming less male-dominated and male-oriented would help in moving along the road towards that goal.

And the same applies to Judaism and Islam. While their influences are minor where I live, there are parts of the world where their influence is intense. The people living in those regions would greatly benefit from those religions shedding some of their patriarchal orientation, and where better to start than to stop pretending that God is a bloke.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, December 2017


Voldemort Dreams

Last night I dreamed of Voldemort.

There’s nothing so strange about that – he’s a memorable character. What makes this worthy of comment is that I realised this morning, for the first time, that I regularly have dreams about Voldemort. But until recently, I have always forgotten them. This is the first time I realised that they are a recurring phenomenon.

They are fairly dramatic dreams. It’s a classic tale of the good (presumably that’s me, and my companions if I have any) trying to find the courage to face up to evil, to confront it, struggle against it – and the fear it evokes – and, one hopes, to vanquish it. Or at least to banish it until the next time it shows up.

Details are sketchy, and would be boring to relate. But the recurring scenario seems to be that, like Harry Potter, I need to venture into Voldemort’s lair (like Frodo going into Mordor) in order to try to bring his plans undone.

There is no absolute need for me to fight Voldemort – no duel with wands at twelve paces or anything like that. But I need to sneak into his headquarters like a secret agent, perhaps to steal some plans or sabotage some special evil-doing equipment he has constructed. I can’t remember the reasons why I need to go into his headquarters, but I do remember that the mission is essential if evil is not to triumph, and that I am very afraid that he will detect my presence and leap out of a wardrobe or somesuch and fling the full weight of his malevolent powers at me. And he does – every time. No matter how quietly I creep about, Voldemort always detects my presence and suddenly leaps out of a wardrobe to attack me with a splendid and terrifying roar.

What happens next I cannot remember. But something extended happens, because he doesn’t win instantly, killing me stone dead on the spot. Maybe some sort of supernatural scuffle and or flight/pursuit ensues and sooner or later I wake up out of that on account of all the excitement.

I don’t want to get too Freudian, but I can’t help feeling that these dreams tell me something. The idea of confronting one’s fears and deliberately going into danger, because it is the right thing to do, may have a strong emotional pull on me. I am, at heart, a romantic, notwithstanding my obsession with mathematics and the correct use of grammar.

A rather more surprising aspect is that the dream involves imagining a character that is supposed to be pure evil. It surprised me because I believe the idea of ‘pure evil’ is dangerous, hyperbolic nonsense. I don’t believe anybody is purely evili. We all do some good things and some bad things. Some people – serial killers, dictators, rednecked talkback radio hosts – do lots of extremely bad things, but I expect even they are not purely evil. I expect they are sometimes kind – to family, to friends, even to strangers that manage to excite their interest or compassion – in those occasional lulls of peace between slaughtering hitchhikers, invading neutral countries and stoking up hatred in resentful white heterosexuals for Muslims, gays or environmental activists.

I don’t believe that evil can be personified – that people like Sauron, Satan, Voldemort or The Penguin are possible. Although I then ask myself ‘Are we really supposed to see the mythological figure of Satan as pure evil?‘. Satan is actually a very interesting fictional character. Some of his complexity may stem from the delightfully baroque Roman Catholic teaching on evil – first cooked up by St Augustine in the fourth century. It says that evil is not a ‘thing’, ie it is not a substance or spirit or anything like that. It is just an absence of another thing that is a thing, which is the ‘good‘. It’s an interesting position, and quite appeals to me, up until the bit where it suggests that the ‘good‘ is a thing. That’s a bit too ectoplasmic for me – the idea that there’s some sort of invisible, nonphysical substance called ‘good’ that floats about and goes here but not there (one wonders, can it be hoovered up by those ectoplasm suction guns that the Ghostbusters use?). It’s needlessly multiplying entities, I reckon. Much easier to just say that people sometimes do kind things and sometimes do mean things, and some people do more of one than the other. William of Ockham would not approve of ‘goodness as a thing‘ (although, being RC, maybe he pretended to, in order to avoid being burnt).

Back to Satan, then: the interesting thing about him is that he isn’t portrayed even in orthodox Christian texts as being pure evil. His story is just that of an angel that didn’t want to serve as an angel any more and so – in what appears to me to be an admirable display of honesty and integrity – resigned. Some bits of the Bible such as the book of Job portray Satan as pretty nasty (but then Yahweh doesn’t come out of Job looking very nice either) but there seems room to view him as a complex, conflicted, multi-faceted figure. Certainly not the sort of person you’d want your daughter to marry, or that you’d trust to do your tax accounts, but not bad enough to deserve exile to an eternity of torment either. I haven’t read Paradise Lost but, by eavesdropping on more literate people that have, I have gained the impression that maybe what Milton was trying to do there was investigate that complexity: Satan as exile, as rebel, as lonely iconoclast.

I digress. Sorry about that. Yes, well I don’t believe in evil as freestanding substance, and I certainly don’t believe in entities that personify evil. So it’s interesting that I dream regularly about battling a character who was created to represent pure evil. Does it mean that my disbelief in evil is purely intellectual, and that deep down I am as credulous and fearful of evil spirits as a Neolithic cave-dweller? Perhaps. Who knows?

Or perhaps even Voldemort is not pure evil. After all, JK Rowling does give him an unhappy childhood, to hint at the idea that maybe he was not always that way – that he was as much a product of his environment as anybody else.

But then I can’t be 100% sure that the terrifying Dark Lord in my dream is always Voldemort. All I know for sure is that in the most recent dream it was Voldemort, and that the dream series in general is about a stupendously powerful being (much more powerful than me) that wishes harm to all sentient beings in the universe. Perhaps other dreams are about Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, or John Le Carré’s Soviet spymaster Karlaii.

Thank goodness my dream self has enough courage to go through with the daring mission each time. It would be mortifying if the last scene of the dream, instead of a big fight-or-flight with a terrifying Dark Lord, saw me skulking about at home in shame and humiliation, having realised that I was too scared to go on the mission that was the free world’s last chance.

I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I have one of the bravest dream selves in the observable universe. Now there’s a boast to conjure with! Who else can claim as much?

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2016

 

And No, Tim Minchin, – much as I love most of your work and, like you, detest the power structures and many of the teachings of the RC church – not even George Pell.

ii  Or perhaps the Daleks of course. We mustn’t forget about them!


The Bishop of Digne

When I first read Les Misérables, I was miffed to find that the first one hundred or so pages were taken up with a character that does not even appear in the musical – Monseigneur Myriel, the saintly bishop of Digne (saintly as in incredibly kind, not as in pious). That hundred pages is basically devoted to painting a picture of just how saintly Mgr Myriel is.

When you know you have 1800 pages ahead of you and are impatient for Jean Valjean (the hero) or Javert (his primary antagonist) to appear, you don’t have much patience for detailed portraits of peripheral characters, however saintly. Mgr Myriel’s sole role in the story is to be the first person that shows the cold, starving, exhausted Jean Valjean some compassion, as Jean makes his way on foot from the prison galleys in Toulon, where he was finally released after nineteen years’ penal servitude, to Pontarlier in Central Eastern France, which is several hundred kilometres to the north. Valjean’s attempts to buy food or shelter along his way are rejected by innkeepers, peasants and even local jail-keepers who distrust and fear him because they know he is a former convict. Valjean seems destined to starve or freeze to death until the bishop takes him in and treats him like an honoured guest. Despite that, Valjean sneaks out of the bishop’s house in the middle of the night, stealing away most of the bishop’s silverware with him – the bishop’s only possessions of any value. When the police arrest Valjean next morning and bring him to the bishop, expecting the bishop to accuse him and thus complete an easy arrest for them, the bishop instead says ‘No, I gave all that to M. Valjean, and also, you silly sausage, you forgot to take these that I gave you as well’ (and hands over to the astonished Valjean the few remaining pieces of silverware). This act of unfathomable kindness stuns Valjean, gives him much to think about, and changes his life (but not instantly: he still manages to steal a shilling off a small kid later that day before he finally ‘sees the light’ – a baroque flourish that is omitted from the musical).

There you have it – one hundred and fifty pages summarised in a paragraph!

Victor Hugo is given to these long diversions. Later in the book there is a very long, technical diversion about the topography of the field in which the battle Waterloo was fought – apparently just to show what a villainous knave the innkeeper Thénardier is (‘Master of the ‘ouse’). And another later on, almost one hundred pages long, describing the construction and layout of the sewers of Paris – just because Valjean will escape the police by going through these, carrying the half-dead body of Marius, his daughter’s boyfriend.

In most cases these interpolations are irritating. They subtract momentum from one’s reading and cause one to lose interest. That’s how I felt on my first reading of Les Mis. There was no momentum to lose, because Mgr Myriel is introduced on page 1, but one is beset by impatience to meet Jean Valjean and come to grips with the famous story. ‘Why are we wasting time on this bloody bishop?’ the impatient reader (me) asks themselves, and ‘We get it already, he’s a very kind person, can we move on now?

But on the second reading it was different. I already knew the story. I knew when JvJ would enter, and why, and I knew what role the bishop would play. So, the impatience having been neutralised, I was alert for little details, items of colour and feeling, that were not essential to the plot, but instead artistic features of what is better considered as a vast tapestry.

And on that second occasion, I found myself entranced and inspired by Mgr Myriel. Unlike cardboard cut-out goodies like Dickens’s Little Nell or Little Dorrit (with Dickens, you always know you’re in for some insufferable Victorian sentimentality when somebody appears with the word Little prefixed to their name), Mgr Myriel seems real. One can imagine that there really are such people – rare, yes, but not extinct. I heard the retired heretical bishop Richard Holloway interviewed on ABC radio a couple of years ago and he sounded a little like what one imagined Mgr Myriel might be like.

How was it Inspirational? Basically, it just made me want to be like Mgr Myriel. I am sadly aware that my troubled, deeply flawed character is a million miles away from that of Mgr Myriel – a ridiculous seething mass of passionate good intentions with very little in the way of good actions to match. But just observing first hand the operation of Mgr Myriel’s apparently bottomless well of compassion made me want to be more like him – even if it meant travelling only a few small steps along the way between where I am and where he is. And in addition, Hugo managed to make it seem possible, that one could be at least a little bit like that.

It’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Hugo’s presentation of Myriel so inspirational and believable and so different from the goody two-shoes vaunted by other Victorian-era authors. Being honest, I have to concede it’s possible that it’s just a consequence of the frame of mind one has when one reads about them. Maybe if I’d read about Little Nell in the right time and place she would be my inspiration. I doubt it, but one must always remain open to the possibility of being mistaken.

One key difference is that Hugo doesn’t content himself with telling us how kind Mgr Myriel is, or with quoting dialogue in which Myriel says pleasant, amiable things. Talk, after all, is cheap. No, what we see beyond his gentle, friendly speech is a long string of tremendously kind actions. Myriel, piece by piece, gives away almost everything he has to those less fortunate than him. Since he is a bishop, and bishops in those days were very wealthy, with palaces, coaches, large incomes and expense allowances, there is an awful lot to give. Having given away almost everything he has, he then researches what other allowances and claims he can make from the church in virtue of his office, does the paperwork to claim whichever ones he can, and then gives those away too.

But never does Myriel congratulate himself. He seems to subscribe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ adage. When asked why he gave this or that thing away, he replies to the effect that he was never entitled to possess it in the first place. But Myriel is no anarchist. His comments are not generalised philosophical points about the nature of private property, but about the specific treatment by society of the people to whom he gives these things. They have been dispossessed, by the operation of law, of privilege, of capitalism, of raw temporal power. As his employer’s policy manual says ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Bishop Myriel does his humble best to redress the imbalance created by the church and state by returning some of the world’s good things – those that he has in his power – to those from whom they have been taken (whether directly or indirectly).

Hugo writes Myriel’s dialogue in such a way that one can imagine doing and saying such things. His lines are not ethereal or sanctimonious, but practical and down-to-Earth. After giving the last remaining silver to Valjean, as well as saving him from a return to penal servitude (this time for life), he professes relief, telling his sister and housekeeper that he was embarrassed to be dining off silver when others in the village had no utensils at all, and that he feels much more relaxed eating his soup out of a wooden bowl.

Here’s a sample. Mgr Myriel is talking to the director of the small, overcrowded church hospital that is attached to his large, luxurious bishop’s palace, and has learned that they have too many people crammed in, in unbearably uncomfortable conditions. After a series of probing questions about conditions in the hospital, Myriel comes out with:

Look, Mister Hospital Director, this is what I reckon. There’s obviously been a mistake. You have twenty-six people in five or six little rooms. We have only three people in here [in the palace], where there is room for sixty. It’s a mistake I tell you. You have my lodgings and I’ll have yours. Give me my house [meaning the little hospital]. This one here is your house.’

No moralising, no sermons, no verbal niceties, just ‘Look – this is what we need to do‘.

He even has a sense of humour – a quality nearly always lacking in nineteenth century heroes. When the housekeeper discovers that Valjean has disappeared overnight and so has the silverware, the following dialogue ensues:

Housekeeper: Your excellency, your excellency, do you know where the basket of silverware is?

Bishop: Yes.

HK: Jesus-God be praised! I didn’t know what had become of it.

Bish: [Picks up and presents to the housekeeper the empty basket that he had spotted lying under a hedge, where Valjean had jettisoned it last night] Here it is!

HK: What!? There’s nothing in it! Where’s the silverware?

Bish: Ah, so it’s the silverware you were worried about. I don’t know where that is.

One might be tempted to think that Myriel is a Marxist in disguise – a fifth-columnist usurping the rich, corrupt church from the inside by giving away whatever of its wealth he can lay his hands on. But that is not the case. For instance he does not give away the (very valuable) robes and ornaments of the cathedral – presumably because he feels that they belong to his congregation, who enjoy seeing them as part of their religious rituals every week. He even believes in a good God – quite an achievement given the corruption and cruelty of those around him who claim to represent that God. He holds fast to a humble, optimistic spiritualism in which God is identified with Love – the value that guides his life in every waking moment.

But he has no time for theology. He has no interest in doctrinal favourites like the trinity, the resurrection, sexual purity, salvation by faith or grace, or the damnation of sinners and unbelievers. When his ecclesiastical colleagues discuss such things he does not criticise them for wasting their time on meaningless arcana. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘They must be terribly clever to understand such things, but it’s much too complicated for a simple man like me‘. If he has a theological position, it is something like that everybody is worthy of salvation, and will ultimately be saved. He never quite articulates this though. If he did, he’d be at risk of punishment as a heretic. But all his actions seem to me to suggest such a belief. He expresses no theological opinions except for the primacy of love. He judges nobody, and is happy to admit his ignorance and uncertainty on all ‘ultimate questions’.

In general I am not a fan of clergy. But I make an exception for Monseigneur Myriel, even if he is fictional. He is an inspiration. I could never be anything like him. But if reading those 150 pages again, without the impatience this time, has motivated me to move even a little bit more from where I am towards where he is on the spectrum of compassion, it will have been worth it.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, February 2016


Reincarnation

I don’t believe in reincarnation in the sense that I could be (unwittingly) the reincarnated soul of Marie Antoinette, but I think that there may be a germ of insight, perhaps even wisdom, in reincarnation myths.

There, I’ve said it. I’ve probably lost half my small readership right there. Let me try to explain, before I lose the other half. It’s not as bad as you think.

‘Here’s the thing’, as I am told young people say these days:

I am very taken by David Hume’s views on the self (as I am by many of Hume’s ideas). He was unable to find that he had any persistent self, no matter how hard he introspected (is that a word?). All he could find was ‘bundles of perceptions’. There is no perceptible separate watcher – a homunculus sitting in an armchair, as it were – watching those perceptions on a High Definition screen with SurroundSound. The perceptions just happen. And they are tied together – identifiable as the perceptions of David Hume – by occurring in the presence of the memories of the physical human body that bears that name.

There is a continuity to the stream of perceptions. They succeed one another, blend together and overlap. But that lasts only for as long as consciousness does. It is interrupted, usually at least once a day, by sleep, anaesthesia, concussion.

We say that we ‘return to consciousness’ but really it is not a return but rather a completely new stream of consciousness. The only connection to the previous one is that it occurs in association with the same human body, and hence that it has essentially the same set of memories.

We do not remember returning to consciousness. Or at least I don’t. Daniel Dennett explains this nicely in relation to peripheral vision. He says that we can’t perceive the boundary of our visual field (try it!) because to perceive a boundary we need to be able to see both sides of the boundary and, by definition, we can’t see the far side of the boundary of our visual field. Similarly, we cannot perceive the instant of regaining consciousness because to do so would require our being conscious of not being conscious immediately before waking up, and that is a contradiction. This only applies to dreamless sleep because when we wake from a dream we were conscious on both sides of the boundary, and we quickly realise that what went before was a dream.

So in a sense, the world is just full of streams of consciousness, each made up of a series of overlapping sensations and thoughts, with most streams lasting no longer than about sixteen hours. We can, if we wish, group those streams of consciousness based on the human body with which the stream is associated, but that grouping is fairly arbitrary. We could just as well have grouped them by the day on which they commenced, by length, or by mood.

Well, perhaps it’s not entirely arbitrary. Apart from memory and a shared body, there is one other thing tying a body’s streams of consciousness together, and that is that each stream cares very much about future streams that will be associated with that body. So Tom, as he goes to bed, cares more that tomorrow he has to wake up 15 minutes earlier to get to an 830 meeting at work than he does that Rajesh in Mumbai is going into hospital for a triple bypass operation, even though the stream of consciousness that is Tom-today is as distinct from Tom-tomorrow as it is from Rajesh-tomorrow. This chauvinistic, body-centric caring is easily explicable by evolution. Animals that cared about their future states of consciousness – particularly about whether the animal would be healthy and happy in future – survived better than animals that did not. We can’t fight it. That’s just the way our nervous systems are configured. But neither can we draw any metaphysical conclusions about the existence of some spooky continuous self or ‘soul’ from it.

If one is a Cartesian Dualist, one believes that there is a ‘soul’ attached to a body, that is non-physical – whatever that means. Although Dualism was the predominant metaphysical view for the last few millenia, it appears to be a minority view now. One can be an Immaterialist – denying the existence of matter and asserting that everything is mental, or one can be a Materialist – asserting that minds are just physical phenomena that we don’t properly understand yet. But either way, most people are Monists – meaning that they believe the world is basically only made of one fundamental kind of ‘stuff’. I feel quite fond of Dualism, if only because it is quaint, old-fashioned and a minority view – which is always attractive to me (which is why I’m typing this with a non-Microsoft word processor on a non-Microsoft, non-Apple operating system). But try as I might I just can’t believe it, so I’m afraid I’ll have to leave it aside and plough on with my Monist biases.

What about before we were conceived then? Nobody seems to feel any big deal about the fact that there are no streams of consciousness associated with their body before they were conceived. I wasn’t conscious then, so I wasn’t around to notice the fact that I wasn’t conscious. Nor can I identify my first conscious moment, probably because of the Dennettian boundary problem already mentioned. I suspect that ‘my’ body gradually attained consciousness, and gradually attained memory, over the first months or years of ‘its’ life.

I feel similarly about what will happen when this body dies. Since I don’t believe in a Christian, Islamic, Valhallian or Olympian after-life, I think that there will simply be no subsequent streams of consciousness associated with this body, and no streams of consciousness that share memories with streams of consciousness of this body. It’s Just As Well really, because after a few years, the body will have been gobbled up by worms and/or fish and/or bacteria and there will be no body left with which streams of consciousness could associate themselves.

And yet….

And yet…. there is something in being human that makes it almost impossible to comprehend that the consciousness of this body will cease forever. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary advantage to feel that, or maybe it’s just random. But it’s there, and I think that that feeling accounts for why nearly all cultures have developed some sort of after-life mythology.

Some deny the cessation by believing in an after-life – a continuation of the ‘same’ consciousness. It’s by no means obvious what ‘the same’ means here. My guess is that it means there will be future streams of consciousness that share memories with the body’s pre-death streams of consciousness. Some deny the cessation of consciousness, or at least mortality, by considering their children or grandchildren to be continuations of themselves. Others deny it by looking at their achievements – their legacy to the human race.

Here’s my answer:

After the death of this body, ‘I’ will still be conscious because every consciousness is an ‘I’. In other words, ‘my’ consciousness won’t cease because at any point in time, all those that are conscious will be conscious, and all those consciousnesses are ‘mine’ because every stream of consciousness is of a ‘me’.

‘My’ streams of consciousness don’t stop happening. All that stops is that there are no more streams of consciousness associated with this particular body, and this set of memories. So – and here’s the wibbly-woo, new-agey bit – ‘I’ become those other streams of consciousness, because they are all ‘I’. We were never really separate, it’s just that each individual stream of consciousness is locked in its own perspective for as long as it lasts – sixteen hours or so.

There’s all sorts of metaphors one could use for this, and they’re all wacky, but they have to be, since we are dealing with the indescribable. One I like is the idea of consciousness as some sort of fluid that is subject to conservation laws in the same way as energy, momentum, angular momentum, electric charge and matter. So whenever a stream of consciousness ends, because of sleep, death or whatever, the amount of consciousness it contains is released and flows into other streams. It’s a metaphor, alright (!?!), so don’t go reaching for those scientific instruments or ectoplasm-detectors or whatever they had in Ghostbusters to try to catch and measure this fluid.

Another metaphor is that in a sense ‘I’ am imprisoned in my own consciousness, unable to perceive what another perceives, no matter how close I am to them. When my stream of consciousness ends – usually around 11:15pm – ‘I’ am set free and can become someone else – another ‘I’. For some reason I visualise a bird – probably a dove (how twee) flying out from a cage whose door has been opened.

It is key to this perspective that consciousness is fungible, not hypothecated (after all what’s the earthly use of studying finance if you can’t insert technical financial terms at strategic points in a philosophical discourse, just to show off). In other words it’s like money. We can no more say that the consciousness from my stream of 29 May 2015 became that of Elton John on 30 May 2015 than we can say that my deposit in the bank paid for part of a particular customer’s home loan. That dismisses the possibility of my being Marie Antoinette right off the bat.

But just as all of a banks liabilities fund all of its assets, the consciousness that is liberated when I go to sleep tonight will replenish the consciousness of all streams that are going at that time. So I am connected to Marie Antoinette not because her consciousness – as a discrete entity – became specifically mine (with many other users in the 200 years between), but because we all share in the same cosmic pool of consciousness, that is particular to no body, and is drawn upon and supplemented billions of times per day as streams commence and end, be it by sleep, waking, death, birth, fainting, or other cause.

In that sense, ‘I’ am Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Florence Nightingale, Elie Wiesel, Hypatia of Alexandria, Lucretia Borgia, George Best, Babe Ruth, Don Bradman, Peter Paul Rubens, Ludwig van Beethoven, Albert Einstein, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and, more importantly – many billions of other less famous people – clever, challenged, creative, dull, kind, cruel, indifferent, confident, shy. ‘I’ may be dogs and bandicoots and other animals too. But that’s the subject of another essay.

Arguably, a problem with this perspective is that consciousness will not persist indefinitely – at least not in this universe. We can be pretty confident that when the universe finally approaches heat death, no life will remain. So where does the consciousness go then? Well, that’s where the whole idea being a metaphor comes in handy. One great thing about metaphors is that you can drop them when something doesn’t fit, and pick them up again a little later. No metaphor fits every situation, because if it did, it wouldn’t be a metaphor (it would be the thing itself). So we drop it and think of something else, just as Shakespeare did when he realised that seas don’t generally fire arrows at you. Oh, no wait….

But why bother with a metaphor at all?

One might object that it’s silly to use a metaphor to orient oneself towards experience, especially when one knows that the metaphor will fail in some instances. My response to that is that every single one of our beliefs is a metaphor, and fails in some instances.

I tell myself I am sitting on a stool in front of a table to type this. The stool is solid and brown and the table is solid and purple. Yet that’s all metaphor too. The atomic theory tells us that what I’m sitting on is mostly empty space, and has no intrinsic colour. It has no integrity either, as it is constantly exchanging particles with its surroundings. But that too is only a metaphor, as quantum mechanics casts doubt on the whole notion of persistent particles, and who knows what even weirder theory will replace quantum mechanics and reveal it to be the crude metaphor that it undoubtedly is. It’s turtles all the way down, and there’s no reason to suppose that there’s a bottom.

Metaphors are neither true nor false, but they can be useful. We are story-telling animals, and stories – aka Metaphors – are the only way we can make any sense of life. They give it a shape that we can handle. Quantum mechanics is a useful metaphor if we want to make a laser (but not if we want to explain a black hole), and my metaphorical idea of this stool is useful if I want to have the experience that I call ‘sitting down’. So my metaphor of consciousness as a shared, universal, substance is useful to me if I want to think about inconceivable issues such as the non-existence of a persistent self, the lack of any conscious processes of this body before it was conceived and after it dies, and the relationship of all we people, and other animals, to one another.

Metaphors are also sometimes called myths, and they are just as good when they have that name.

Is this all just avoidance?

I can’t help pre-empting criticisms. It’s a vicious habit I picked up, I don’t know when but a long time ago. The wisdom of the ages says don’t bother, because it makes one’s writing longer, more complex, disjointed, ugly and harder to read. And critics rarely pay attention to one’s pre-emptions anyway. I can write “most dogs have fur that cause allergies to some people, but poodles don’t”, and some eager person will still sometimes respond “aha, but what about poodles? Got you there!”.

But since, like many people, I am my own worst critic I can’t help the odd pre-emption (of my own self-criticism), so I’ll allow myself one (or is it two? Did I already do one? We addicts are hopeless). Here it is.

Isn’t this all just some pathetic attempt to rationalise one’s way out of a fear of death by postulating some ridiculous Universal Consciousness? Why not just admit that when a body dies, it has no more conscious experiences, and that’s that?

Well Andrew (I reply), I’m glad you asked that question. Firstly I’d just like to observe that I did already say that (I believe) a dead body has no more conscious experiences, and there will be no more conscious experiences that have any memories of experiences that the body had. So this myth/metaphor doesn’t seek to deny or avoid that.

Nor is the myth relevant to fear of death, at least not for me. I used to fear death when I believed in a personal after-life, because I feared the punishments that had been threatened in that after-life if I didn’t conform to the strict expectations laid out in a rather large book of unrealistic rules. In fact I even feared the alternative of being ‘rewarded’ with eternal happiness, because I was convinced that no matter what treats and delights that reward comprised, I would be excruciatingly and agonisingly bored within a few billion years. But once I ceased to believe in an after-life, I ceased to believe in the possibility of such punishments, and hence I ceased to fear death. That is different of course from the fear of how one gets there (‘dying’), as I imagine that being squashed under the wheels of a Land Rover or being eaten by enraged Koalas is rather uncomfortable, albeit only for a short while.

No, the purpose of the myth, as far as I understand it, is twofold: first to escape the niggardly narrowness of the first-person perspective that is imposed on us by our bodily structure; second to open up possibilities for contemplating the mystery of consciousness, a phenomenon that no amount of scientific investigation seems ever likely to be able to explain. Given how mysterious and indefinable consciousness is (as opposed to mere brain activity that interprets sensory data, processes information and generates physical actions including speech), how unnecessary to the evolutionary account of the human brain it is, and how we (ie David Hume and I) are unable to detect any subject (‘self’) of this consciousness, it appears less ridiculous to me to regard consciousness as something primal, something universal that transcends individual bodies, than as an inexplicable phenomenon that arises in association with lumps of meat that are configured in just the right way.

Does that sound like a Humph! ? It wasn’t meant to. Ah well, if it is so, let it be so.

Marie Antoinette, 16 October 1793.

800px-MarieAntoinette1769-70


Lord, Liar or Lunatic? No, but maybe Lack or Libelled.

CS Lewis coined the memorable phrase ‘Lord, Liar or Lunatic’ in his advocacy of the orthodox Christian dogma that Jesus of Nazareth was God, and his rejection of the view held by some less doctrinaire Christians that he may have been a man with some admirable teachings.

The argument appears compelling: Jesus said he was God, so either he was a liar, in which case we should reject everything he said, or he was deluded (a lunatic, in Lewis’s colourful, alliterative prose), in which case we should also reject his teachings, or he was actually God, in which case we should worship him. This analysis deliberately leaves no room for the ‘Jesus as sage’ interpretation. On the face of it, it implies that moderate Christians, who take a mostly metaphorical interpretation of Christian teaching, lack intellectual integrity, that they are guilty of wishful thinking at the expense of cold, hard rationalism – which is what Lewis thinks he practises.

Persuasive though this argument may sound, it is wrong. If Lewis had offered only two choices, we would call it a a false dichotomy. As he has offered three, let us call it a false trichotomy instead. The whole argument rests on the unstated assumption that Lord, Liar and Lunatic are the only choices available. But we can never be sure that the alternative explanations offered for any observation are exhaustive unless one of them is labelled something like ‘none of the above’, or can be proven equivalent to ‘none of the above’. Lewis never proved that Lord, Liar and Lunatic are the only possible explanations, and we can easily see they are not by considering two other possibilities.

Lack – Perhaps Jesus of Nazareth is fictional

The evidence that there was a single person called Jesus who lived in Nazareth around 0-30 CE and spent his last few years travelling around Palestine preaching and conducting healing ceremonies is fairly strong, but not overwhelming. There is little or no eye-witness mention of such a person from Roman historians, who chronicle many other less important events of that time and region.

The literature debating the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth existed is enormous, and there’s no need or space to review it here. But the very existence of significant debate on this topic amongst ancient historians, even if the ‘Jesus really did exist’ case is predominant, indicates that we cannot definitively exclude the possibility that there was no single Jesus of Nazareth that said all these things, in which case a lack of a Jesus character, implying that the New Testament stories are myths, needs to be added to the Lord, Liar and Lunatic options.

Libelled – Perhaps Jesus didn’t claim what they claim he did

Much more likely though, and not mentioned at all by Lewis, is that there was a single holy man called Jesus of Nazareth, who lived around that time, but he never claimed to be God.

It is undeniable that the Gospels contain some reporting errors, as the reports of the sequence of events on Easter Sunday contradict one another. So why shouldn’t the parts where Jesus implies that he is God be reporting errors? This could very easily happen, as there are very few passages that support such a claim, and most of what there is is vague and indirect. It is entirely plausible that the biblical reports of those implied claims were not based on eyewitness reports but on wishful thinking inserted later by a devoted disciple. After all, we know that the earliest written gospel – Mark – was written more than thirty years after the assumed date of Jesus’ death.

Further, Jesus is not reported in the Gospels as ever having directly claimed to be God. There are passages such as John 8:58 that are interpreted as implying such a claim, and others where he accepted worship (Matthew 2:2, 14:33, and 28:9; John 9:35-38). In some passages Jesus describes himself as the “Son of God”, but it requires some heavy-duty interpretation to accept these as claims of divinity. After all, the Bible also tells us that we are all sons of God, but most non-pantheists don’t interpret that to mean we are all God.

Now maybe these interpretations are correct and maybe they are not. Maybe they are all historically accurate and maybe they are not. But it is undeniable that there is a great deal of presumption required in order to conclude that Jesus was Lord, Liar or Lunatic. It is at least equally likely (and seems much more likely to me) that he was Libelled by the gospel writers.

After all, I could place an article on Wikipedia entitled “Obama Divinity Claim” and say in it that President Obama has claimed to be God, and that hence he must be either Lord, Liar or a Lunatic. Since he clearly isn’t a Lunatic and hasn’t shown evidence of being an egregious Liar (and that would be a most egregious lie), according to Lewis we must then conclude that He – President Obama – is indeed our Lord and God.

Of course that would be nonsense. The correct interpretation would simply be that I had libelled the president, by claiming he said something that He (sorry, ‘he’) didn’t.

Why does this matter?

The purpose of this essay is not to undermine anybody’s belief that Jesus was God. Right now I have no interest in disputing the divinity of Jesus, Krishna, Dionysus, Osiris, Mithra or any other purported incarnation of a deity. If someone wants to believe in any of those things, I am entirely supportive of their decision to do so, as long as they don’t use it as a basis for vilifying or otherwise tormenting others who don’t believe the same thing, or who don’t conform to a set of rules about victimless crimes, purportedly made up by the said deity.

What I wish to do here is to champion the intellectual honesty and integrity of moderate Christians such as John Shelby Spong, Richard Holloway or John Dominic Crossan, who regard the Gospels as a source of some wisdom, but deny that Jesus was Lord, Liar or Lunatic. I have a particular fondness for people of moderate religious belief, who accept the claims of their chosen religion that they find plausible, and reject the rest. By doing this they can avoid having to ‘disengage their brain’ in order to accept all the beliefs they find implausible. Although I believe no religion, and doubt there are any gods, I am convinced that religion will always be with us, as it is an easy way to address a number of deep psychological needs. Since some people must be religious, surely it will be more conducive to the peace and harmony of humanity as a whole, if those that are religious are mostly of the doubtful, open-minded Spong, Holloway or Crossan variety rather than the devout and utterly convinced bin Laden, Ahmedinajad, Westboro Baptist, George W Bush or Pat Robertson variety?

To these liberal Christian theologians, we can also add many Muslims and Jews as people who reject the Lord, Liar or Lunatic hypothesis, choosing instead to regard Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet or holy man, whose sayings are worthy of contemplation, but denying his divinity. I have as low an opinion of Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists as I do of Christian ones, but many members of those religions are not fundamentalist, do not regard their scriptures as inerrant, and are comfortable accepting some of the sayings attributable to Jesus as another source of wisdom upon which they can draw.

Lewis’s false trichotomy would paint Spong, Holloway, Crossan, and anybody else that likes some of what Jesus is alleged to have said but is not convinced that he was God, as wishy-washy and self-delusional, holding contradictory beliefs for irrational, emotional reasons. I want to suggest the contrary. A moderate, partly metaphorical, ‘cafeteria’ approach to Christianity, or any other dogmatic religion, is the only one that is logically defensible, as the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, like any other long religious texts, contain many internal contradictions, as well as claims that are contradicted by science. What matters is not so much which bits they choose (although I’d rather they rejected the homophobic, misogynist, pro-slavery, pro-genocide bits and the threats of eternal hellfire) as that they accept that it is reasonable for somebody else to accept different bits, bits of a completely different religious text, or none at all.