Thursday, September 15 2011

What is lost when we learn to write

A Welsh linguist has helped the Shanjo people of Zambia to develop a written version of their oral language, ciShanjo. Fascinating. Paul Tench reports, 'It would be good for the Shanjo people’s sense of self-worth, their dignity, pride in their distinctive culture, their standing in the region, not only to be literate in their own language, but also to develop their own literature and to give visual expression in public signs, at school and in all their institutions.'

I've no doubt that's true. It's the way of the world. However, I read the story at the same time as reading The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram. He argues that nothing less than the ecological crises we face today stem, originally, from the huge shift in consciousness that was precipitated by oral cultures learning to write.

Roughly, he argues that the magic of reading and writing happens on the page, the extraordinary way in which scribbled marks can grip you to convey sense, voice, meaning, engagement.

But in an oral culture, language is written, as it were, on the landscape. It is intimately connected with the sensuousness of place. The classic case in point is the Aboriginal culture of Australia. Abram vividly describes the synesthesia of identity, environment, dreaming and language that roots Aboriginals, and other indigenous peoples - and that is lost with writing. Alienation from nature is the result.

As the technology of writing encounters and spreads through a previously oral culture, the felt power and personality of particular places begins to fade... Writing down oral stories renders them separable, for the first time, from the actual places where the events in those stories occurred... Once the stories are written down, however, the visible text becomes the primary mnemonic activator of the spoken stories - the inked traces left by the pen as it traverses the page replacing the earthly traces left by the animals, and by one's ancestors... Gradually the felt primacy of place is forgotten, superseded by a new, abstract notion of "space" as a homogeneous and placeless void.

A lot has happened when you've learnt to write.

(Image: Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Australia, Thomas Schoch)


Wednesday, September 14 2011

Philosophy Now Radio

... is into its new run. Last week, Grant Bartley talked with myself on Wellbeing and two fellow Art of Living authors, Ziyad Marar, who wrote Deception, and Piers Benn, whose new title Commitment is out later this year.

Do have a listen to that and the other shows.


Tuesday, September 13 2011

A depressing moment by the Shard

I was contemplating the soullessness of the Shard again last night, London's 'warning sign of disease' as Jonathan Jones put it - the disorder being environmental, aesthetic and economic disproportion.

Its straight lines heading in one, dreary direction. Up. Its growth for growth's sake, the 'philosophy of the cancer cell'. Like a derivative work of conceptual art, it has one message - size - that you get at first glance and, by choice, would never particularly want to see again.

Size is offered as architectural interest, sheer scale as a prompt to curiosity. But it isn't at all remarkable in buildings, and so there's only one way to go: even bigger.

I thought on. That is the disease of our times. I upgraded my mobile just to have more memory, fooled into thinking that 5 gigabytes will inject more excitement into my life than 2. Or there are the headlines panicking as economies flat line, as if growth of itself would precipitate spontaneous outbreaks of human happiness.

The Shard seemed like a monument to a lack of surprise at life - genuine surprise replaced by a fetish for new, bigger objects, gizmos. As I looked at its acres of repetitively blank glass, desperately trying to catch a reflection of the city so as to make its surface look interesting, I felt my senses depleting, my body disappearing.

Then, the sight of a London plane tree, beginning to yellow with autumn, waving in tune with the strong evening wind. Thank you. It told me that I was, in fact, alive.

(Image: Richard Fisher)


Monday, September 12 2011

Healing hearts

Listening to some of the commemorations of 9/11, it struck me how often the human heart was referenced, in the context of healing. And I wondered: is this meant metaphorically or literally?

For example, Mark Oakley in St Paul's preached a great sermon, which included this thought: 'Whereas our bodies often do quite a lot to heal themselves, human hearts are not so skilful. They need to be loved back into life...'

And Prince Charles, in a very thoughtful speech, remarked: 'But then I began to reflect that all the greatest wisdom that has come down to us over the ages speaks of the overriding need to break the law of cause and effect and somehow to find the strength to search for a more positive way of overcoming the evil in men's hearts.'

Is there evil literally in men's hearts? Can human hearts really be loved back to life? I suspect the phrases can be taken literally, that the heart is more than a mechanical organ capable of carry metaphorical associations.

There is, of course, Shakespeare's line about hearts having reasons. Digging around on the internet, not always the best guide, it seems there is a growing acceptance of the notion of the 'functional heart brain', following the research of Andrew Armour. There's a short summary paper from the Royal College of Psychiatrists here. For example, and if I've understood it right, after a heart transplant, the nerves of the heart do not reconnect for some time, and yet the new heart functions. In the paper, Mohamed Omar Salem discusses how hearts may communicate with the rest of the body and the brain via their exceptionally strong magnetic fields too, and further:

There is now evidence that a subtle yet influential electromagnetic or ‘energetic’ communication system operates just below our conscious awareness. Energetic interactions possibly contribute to the ‘magnetic’ attractions or repulsions that occur between individuals, and also affect social relationships. It was also found that one person’s brain waves can synchronize to another person’s heart.

(There's further speculation about the heart's involvement in precognition, though this is obviously controversial, and so I'll avoid the distraction.)

It's funny how we need MRI scanners and the like to help us believe things many intuitively know, and our ancestors presumably took to be blindingly obvious aspects of life. The heart has its reasons. Duh! Such are our times.

Then again, I know that in the heart unit up the road from here, people undergoing open heart surgery are told that it is a particularly emotive operation. You are warned about having a seemingly irrational moment of breakdown, after the wound itself is well on the mend, because your heart will have been exposed in more than one way.

Can hearts be helped literally by being loved? Can forces such as evil reside in men's hearts? It seems so.


Friday, September 9 2011

God and the race to the White House

A lesson from history, if you're watching with mounting horror the rise of evangelical forces in the American Republican party. (There's a good state-of-play survey at FaithWorld.)

Thomas Kidd, Baylor University historian and scholar of religion, observes that in the election of 1800, Federalists took out weekly newspaper advertisements asking whether Americans would prefer a 'God and religion' leader like John Adams to Thomas Jefferson and 'no God.'

In spite of the smears, Jefferson won.


Thursday, September 8 2011

Philosophy breaking out all over

The London School of Philosophy just launched its new association with Conway Hall.

The Philosophers' Arms just 'opened' on BBC Radio 4.

Oh, and The Idler Academy's ancient philosophy symposiums soon begin, with the pre-Socratics on 4th October, and yours truly.

I'm also leading a series of evening classes on free speech at the Bishopsgate Institute, in conjunction with English PEN, starting 12th September.


Tuesday, September 6 2011

Writing in the dust on 9/11

As the hype up to the anniversary of 9/11 reaches full steam, I am trying to remember the thought of some of the New Yorkers who were on the recent religion and violence seminar.

They observed that whilst the world heard George Bush declare a war on terror, and saw Tony Blair fall into line like a lieutenant, many who lived in the city preferred silence. They lit candles. They attended vigils. They squared up to the horror not with cries of justice and vengeance, but with remarkable compassion and calm.

We had been talking about Rowan Williams' book, Writing in the Dust, his reflections on the day in which he too was caught up. The title comes from the story of Jesus being presented with the woman caught in adultery, the pharisees demanding an instant respond. Jesus writes in the dust.

Williams reflects that there is a satisfaction to be had in responding quickly, dramatically. It feels like you are doing something meaningful, taking control. 'What makes discharging tension attractive is that it is an act that has a beginning and an end.' But the end often slips from view; the promise of closure revealed as an illusion. A different approach is to stay with the vulnerability. It's harder to do - impossible for politicians - though it was the example of the emergency services, Williams believes, who are practiced 'living in the presence of death'.

'Simone Weil said that the danger of imagination was that it filled up the void when we need to learn how to live in the presence of the void.' It's from the void that faith might return.

The anniversary is being marked by action programming that covers the story from every possible angle, as if desperate to fill the void. But I think too of the thought of the New Yorkers.

(Image: Scotty Weaver mourns the loss of son, P.O. Walter Weaver ESU Truck #3, during 9/11 Memorial Service at Ground Zero. Andrea Booher/FEMA)


Sunday, September 4 2011

Three things I read

Roger Scruton on icons (super-thoughtful piece in Prospect)

The growth of the advertising industry and of the marketable image has been greeted from the very beginning by protests from social commentators, fearing what Marx called “commodity fetishism”—in other words, the diversion of our energies from those free activities that are “ends in themselves” towards the world of addictive desires. Marx took the idea of fetishism from Feuerbach, who believed that all religion involves this state of mind, in which we animate the world with our own emotions, so placing our life “outside” of ourselves, and becoming enslaved to the puppets of our own imagination.

Pankaj Mishra on 9/11 (long reflective piece in the Guardian)

The sense of mad overkill, intellectual as well as military, grows more oppressive when you realise that, though al-Qaida murdered many people on 9/11 and undermined American self-esteem, the capacity of a few homicidal fanatics to seriously harm a large and powerful country such as the US was always limited. There is nothing surprising about their spectacular lack of success in rousing Muslim masses anywhere (as distinct from inciting a few no-hopers into suicidal terrorism). Their fantasy of a universal caliphate was always more likely to provoke fierce Muslim resistance than the globalising project of the west. Over-reaction to al-Qaida was by far the bigger danger to the west throughout the last decade; and, as it happened, groups of rootless conspirators, initially cultishly small and marginal, quickly proliferated around the world as a direct result of western military and ideological excesses after 9/11.

George Steiner on proofs for God (review of the arguments in the TLS, noting recent new developments)

The existence of our universe, its physical characteristics, the biological evolution of organic life make it inherently and cumulatively more plausible, more likely that God exists than the opposite... Swinburne argues eloquently that atheism offers no adequate counter-explanation. Any argument for possibility and the probable does nevertheless remain unquantifiable and impressionistic.

Incidentally, Steiner includes man-of-the-moment William Lane Craig, the philosopher no new atheist, apparently, wants to debate.

Recuperating a line of argument crucial to medieval Islam, W.L. Craig affirms the necessary causal foundation of the cosmos. This ultimate is itself without natural basis. The Big Bang and the laws of entropy, moreover, prove that our cosmos has its origins in time (Augustine would have concurred). This, again, legitimizes the assumption of a divine builder. But does it point to a personal God accessible to human apprehension?

(Image: Christ Acheiropoietos)


Friday, September 2 2011

Sexual Excess and the Meaning of Love

Exploring psychodynamic accounts of male homosexuality

In his autobiography, Chance Witness, the journalist Matthew Parris describes one day standing by an exit of the London Underground, from which commuters are pouring, and asking himself how many of the passing men he would like to have sex with? His answer is low: barely one in a hundred. So what sense, he asks, does it make to define himself as gay – a man supposed to seek sex with other men – when the overwhelming majority of men do nothing for him erotically?

If Michel Foucault is right, the modern experience of being human has been shaped, in part, by a scientia sexualis. The science established a link between the truth of an individual’s personhood and their sexual activity, ‘a new rationality whose discovery was marked by Freud – or someone else,’ as Foucault puts it. And yet, Foucault also argued that sexual rationality is simultaneously alienating, as it provokes anxiety about the truth of an individual’s sexuality identity too. Parris’s confusion is a case in point.

Freud himself was ambiguous on homosexuality. On the one hand, he describes the homosexual individual as having made a manifest narcissistic object-choice that renders him identifiable as an ‘invert’ and ‘pervert’. His default position on human sexuality has usefully been characterised as ‘norm and deviation’, the norm signified by heterosexual functioning that, resonating with his biologism, is best orientated towards procreativity.

But on the other hand, Freud complicates his analysis by blurring the boundaries between the ‘pathological’ homosexual and heterosexual others. All people, he notes in a universalizing move, are ‘capable of making a homosexual object-choice and have in fact made one in their unconscious’, adding that psychoanalysis is opposed to the separation of people on the basis of a supposed orientation and, further, that homosexuality is not explained either by the hypothesis that is it innate or acquired. If the aim today, following the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, is to develop non-pathological understandings of homosexuality, then these latter principles are worth remembering.

Jung too seemed undecided about homosexuality. He variously regarded homosexual desire as psychologically immature; not criminal; symptomatic of cultural and historical factors as well as psychological; not defining a person; and as having meaning for the individual concerned. That meaning would unfold through individuation, the complex and individually unique process of psychological development that aims at personal wholeness. From Jung, it could be concluded that there is no such thing as homosexuality, but rather, as many sexualities as there are people.

However, as Foucault spotted, the notion of defined sexual orientations has a powerful appeal because establishing a link between sexual activity and personal identity promises knowledge, about the client for the analyst, and about themselves for the ‘gay individual’. As a result, more recent strategies for developing non-pathological accounts of homosexuality often sustain the link. Isay, for example, re-describes the Oedipal situation so that the peculiar emotional difficulties gay men have with their fathers are explained as a consequence of a gay orientation, as opposed to a cause. This is still a normative approach, in which the deviant becomes, say, the bisexual.

Another tendency, that over-values the link in a different way, might be described as the romantic politicization of homosexual sexual activity. It is found amongst queer theorists. Bersani, for example, describes a character he refers to as the ‘gay outlaw’. The outlaw pursues a variety of subversive sexual activities that threaten dominant cultural ideologies and, further, do not seek the mutual exchanges of loving human relationships in them. The political eclipses the personal.

This fascination with the cultural politics of sex is common in the gay sub-cultures of many modern cities, though it is not clear that it is has led to the outcomes queer theorists celebrate. Instead, it can be argued that it has merely fed the commoditization of sex in gay clubs and saunas. As Mark Simpson dryly remarks, ‘Gays have indeed changed the world and the shape of men’s underpants forever’. More seriously, from the point of view of the therapist, it has arguably contributed to what has recently been described as a ‘mental health crisis’ amongst gay men. ‘LGB people are at significantly higher risk of suicidal behaviour, mental disorder, substance misuse and substance dependence than heterosexual people.’

Now, this is an enormously complicated predicament, weaving socio-economic, cultural and psychological elements. However, from the therapeutic point of view, there is value in returning to those early intuitions from Freud and Jung.

Freud’s universalizing instinct emphasizes that human sexuality is a continuum, rather than hanging on singular object-choices, which renders it an unstable source of identity. To embed the insight further, it is also necessary to critique his heteronormative biologism, the implication that the main or normal goal of sexual activity is procreative. It is a move inherent in Lacan who, in his theory of the mirror phase, builds on the observation that human beings are born prematurely. This results in erotic gestures carrying meanings that are psychological rather than biological, and further, that are ‘permanently out of synch’ with one another. Hence, for example, Lacan’s axiom, ‘il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel’, focuses on the failure he sees as inevitable in a man and a woman’s attempt to relate to each other sexually (even when, biologically speaking, they are successful): rapport means both rapport and ratio in French, implying that their sexual connection never completely matches up.

What this highlights is that human beings experience erotic desire as excessive, in the sense that whatever objects it becomes attached to, they will not satisfy it. Whether this is due to a fundamental lack at the origins of human subjectivity, as Lacan proposes, or because the erotic reaches for a plenitude ultimately beyond human experience, as Plato proposes, is another moot point. Nonetheless, psychodynamic accounts that aim to deliver a complete scientia sexualis will similarly always fail too. Better, like Shakespeare, to pose an open question to love: ‘What is your substance, whereof you are made?’

So, Hedges suggests, the scientia sexualis should be treated as a generator of ‘local myths – just-so stories’. They are valuable and inevitable as they are the way we deal with reality. But also limited and limiting. Hedges continues: ‘I believe it is our task as psychotherapists to listen to individual just-so sex stories, as well as to professionally generated just-so sex theories, and to try to untangle whatever limiting meanings have become attached to them.’

This resonates with Jung’s insight about homosexuality having meaning for the individual concerned, implying that the task for everyone is to discover the meaning of love. ‘Love is always a problem,’ Jung wrote, an ‘intensely individual’ one, and is such that every ‘general criterion and rule loses its validity’ when we try to make sense of it – though, for the sake of our development, try, we must.


Thursday, September 1 2011

The Faith Machine, on losing your soul

The Faith Machine had its first night at the Royal Court last night. It went down well.

The story features that rare creature, a bishop who was broken by the 1998 Lambeth conference, the 'anti-gay one' that Peter Selby likened to a Nuremberg rally. Bishop Edward has some of the best lines too. 'Nihilism is the victory of the status quo,' was one I chewed over on the way home.

Congratulations as well to Alexi Kaye Campbell who deftly finds a relatively fresh response to the arguments of atheism. 'Fools, fools, fools', Edward says, for trying to understand 'the soul of the world' without myth and poetry. 'The militant atheist saying, "Don't think like that, don't dream like that, don't wish like that, don't breathe like that."'

Thinking, dreaming, wishing, breathing like that is traumatically demonstrated when Edward loses his mind to dementia. All he can remember are lines from the Bible. I've heard carers report the same thing. The person would say nothing all day long and then recite the Magnificat or the Lord's Prayer in perfect King James English. The lines are not remembered in their minds, which have gone, but are written on their souls. They can still think and dream a little.

The story of the play revolves around Edward's daughter, Sophie, and her off and on boyfriend, Tom. She is all soul, becoming a journalist so as to devote her life to reporting personal stories of war and exploitation. He had soul in his youth, manifest in an unpublished novel, though then he sold his soul to the highest bidder - becoming an amoral, highly paid advertising account manager.

That's a bit of an easy dig, though it got good laughs. It fascinated me as well that the Royal Court wanted a play that spent quite some time discussing the arguments of the Anglican communion.

But the message? On the face of it, that is obvious: Tom loses his soul. The word is used against him several times. However, I was surprised when, in the final scene, one of the characters says this line: 'For what good shall it profit a man shall he gain the whole world?'

It's another Biblical quote, and garbled, and at first I thought the actor must have got it wrong. But Alexi must have meant it that way: I checked the script.

The original poetry runs, 'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' So I took the message actually to be more subtle. We're in danger of losing the line about losing our soul, and we hardly even know now that it can go.


Tuesday, August 30 2011

How the Bible doesn't do doubt

Preparing for my talk at Greenbelt, yesterday, I thought to see what the New Testament has to say about doubt. I was surprised. It turns out, nothing at all - at least doubt in the sense meant mostly today, as in 'I doubt x is true'.

Instead, the Greek words typically translated as doubt mean 'being of two minds' or 'disputing so as to cause division'. This makes a huge difference to the way the texts are read, I suspect.

For example, when in Mark, Jesus talks about moving mountains if you do 'not doubt in your heart', it is tempting to read it today as a kind of magic trick - as if it's saying believe God exists, or that Jesus is God, and the earth will move for you, literally. But the text really means you can achieve extraordinary things if you truly set your heart to it.

Or James, the letter with one of the most sustained riffs apparently against doubt, part of which reads 'you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea'. That sounds today like being able to assert every sub-clause of the creed with full confidence, no questions. Except again it is really a comment on trusting in God and sticking to your guns, holding to your deepest commitments.

The broad point seems to be that the use of words like diakrino and distazo are reflections on belief as a way of life not truth statements. The irony is that holding to a way of life will involve doubts, uncertainties, unknowing - actually, needs to, in a sense. Think of what it's like to love someone or to write a book or to devote your life to the study of dark matter. Doubts may be an everyday occurrence, and the capacity to live with feeling unsure, crucial to success: personal growth, creativity, discovery depends upon it. I understood why Rowan Williams remarked, when we spoke to him making our radio programmes on doubt, that faith is close to doubt.

What's required is keeping faith - faith too not being about confidently asserting metaphysical propositions but rather developing the capacity to trust yourself, others, God.

Most of my talk was about why we now think faith is a question of rational proof rather than courageous commitment, and I think it turns on the modern notion that the truth of life is discovered by stepping back from life, seeking a 'view from nowhere', rather than stepping into life and participating in it. This leads to the sense that doubt, not knowing, uncertainty is a kind of failure, rather than integral to choosing life in all its fullness and becoming wise.

But as Martin Luther, no less, realised, 'Knowledge and doubt are inseparable to man. The sole alternative to knowledge-with-doubt is no knowledge at all.'


Sunday, August 28 2011

The end of supersymmetry

I've been wondering why the news that supersymmetry may be in its death-throws at the LHC has barely made a headline. Civil wars and hurricanes are blocking the view. But past noise suggests LHC spin doctors could surely come up with something to grab attention. Where is Brian Cox when you need him?

Or maybe they are genuinely nervous. If SUSY falls, standard speculations in physics - the features that have tenured a thousand physicists and sold a million popular science books - start to tumble: string theory, higher dimensions, holographic universes, multiverses, theories of everything.

Renegade physicists have been musing on such failure for ages. 'My own guess, for what it's worth,' wrote Lee Smolin in The Trouble With Physics, 'is that... supersymmetry will not explain the observations at the LHC.'

Or there is Roger Penrose. He always worried about 'strange-sounding ideas like the need for extra dimensions to spacetime, or for point particles to be replaced by extended entities known as "strings",' as he wrote in The Road To Reality. Quantum physics has been 'a good deal easier than it would be without supersymmetry,' he continues. 'But this does not tell us that Nature herself does it this way. She may have quite different tricks up her sleeve!'

SUSY isn't gone yet. But it is intriguing: we might be witnessing yet another paradigm shift in the story of modern physics.


Saturday, August 27 2011

Spot the difference?

I think it must be the whites of the eyes. On the left, a real chimpanzee. On the right, a fake ape, from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The film is a slick, entertaining if rather obvious morality tale for our times - and left me thinking how they best conveyed the smart minds of the altered apes.

There was the advanced use of tools, the signing, and eventually even speech. But I think the most convincing moments were mostly achieved with the whites of the eyes.

(Image left: Common chimpanzee in the Leipzig Zoo, by Thomas Lersch)


Friday, August 26 2011

The future of terrorist violence

One final bleak thought from the religion and violence seminars - also something of a grim prediction.

James W Jones argued that it is wrong to think of suicide bombers as brainwashed. Neither has psychopathology been a good indicator of who is a risk, to date: psychopaths aren't good with groups and so will not join terrorist organisations. Those who deploy lethal violence have justified their actions with all manner of reasons and to understand their actions requires multiple causes.

However, there is an unhappy synchronicity that the spectacular events of 9/11 coincided, more or less, with the globalisation of the internet. The security response has been pretty successful at homing in on groups. But the internet means that disparate networks and individuals barely linked to organisations like al-Qaeda, though inspired by them, have thrived.

In other words, the future of terrorism is with individuals. Recent events in Norway may be a case in point. Moreover, and although the mental state of Anders Behring Breivik is moot, individual actors are more likely to show psychopathology as they perform such actions in an imitative way.


Thursday, August 25 2011

How to address a revolutionary crowd

A fascinating vignette from the Arab Spring in Egypt at the seminar on religion and violence:

We were supposed to have a session with Moez Masoud, one of the leaders of the revolution who is also studying in the religion and psychology group at Cambridge. He couldn't make it, due to last minute pressures in Cairo. However, Sara Savage, with whom Masoud works, told us of him one day calling her, just as he was about to address a crowd in Tahrir Square.

The mood was tense, the stakes high. Lives might depend on what was said. The great risk in such situations is that crowds adopt binary thinking. The group sees only good guys and bad guys, only friends or enemies. This Manichean world carries great emotion appeal to the human mind. It focuses energy and inspires moral outrage. It moves people. It sparks revolution. But it also sparks violence, commits atrocities. So the question, Masoud had, is how to stir the emotion and avoid provoking knee-jerk reactions that might later be regretted?

Sara had simple advice, though it sounds a bit technical. Use conjunctions in your speech, she said on the mobile phone, though not negations. Say 'both', 'and', 'also'. Avoid 'either/or', 'not', 'against'. And use your body, because when people feel things in their bodies they are capable of holding complexity. They can know the desire for justice and for compassion. They can sense what it is to believe in more than one moral value. So, hold up one fist and declare absolute commitment to freedom. Then hold up another fist and declare absolute commitment to avoiding a bloodbath. And keep both in the air.

I imagine the phone went dead, for we didn't hear how it went. But next time you're addressing a revolutionary crowd...

(Image: Celebrations in Tahrir Square by Jonathan Rashad)


Wednesday, August 24 2011

Beyond me

A week back, I posted about an article on Buddhism and Christianity I'd had published in Third Way. It is behind a pay wall, though I've now had permission to publish the entire piece here.


Tuesday, August 23 2011

War is morality by other means

Scott Atran was the speaker in the morning of day three of the religion and violence conference - the anthropologist who through his impressive face-to-face research into the values of terrorists has come to recognise that sacred not material concerns are primary in these conflicts. This has all sorts of consequences for the way you might conduct a 'war on terror'. Politicians must engage sacred values from the top, not treat them as mere colour, as the dominant political paradigms tend to, given their focus on strategic and economic interests. I've written about Atran's book Talking to the Enemy before, so here are some thoughts responding to his presentation.

Atran sets his work in an evolutionary context, arguing that religion is necessary to overcome the 'selfish gene' problems associated with forming large groups. Large collectives like societies have to buy into a notion of 'fictive kinship' to form, and a moral deity helps like nothing else. Belief in such an entity means that the individual sublimates their own interests to those of the group/god, and internalizes punishment for going against the group that the god represents. To put it another way, universal monotheism is a prerequisite for any kind of universal humanism, the attitude in which the group comes to include everyone.

The downside is that it makes war, or at least the possibility of war, an ever present threat for the reason that it is our moral passions that drive us, and nothing drives moral passions like conflict - who's in, who's out, who's threatening what's most dear, what's sacred to us. To put it another way again, war is not politics by other means, it is morality by other means. Hence the US fights for the idea of freedom; the Muslim radical for the values of jihad.

The double downside is that violent actions are irrational: they are not calculating, but the research shows that people engage in violence because they feel they ought to or have to. 'I cannot stand by whilst [insert sacred value] is offended.' Moreover, sacred values drive conflict with little regard to the prospect of success, and so as commitment to a cause matters more than access to superior weaponry, conflicts tend to perpetuate over generations, until the cause ceases.

So far, so fascinating and bleak. But listening to Atran also raised questions for me about such analysis.

For example, he notes that people with sacred values always sniff out the attempt to have their values manipulated, perhaps for the utilitarian ends of a more material calculus. It's a bit like being asked whether you would sell your child for a million, or two million, or three? The more that is offered the more offended you become, your child being sacred to you. But is not the whole project of evolutionary psychology, with its invisible hand of survival advantage, a story about the manipulation of values? How come, then, the invisible hand works?

A related point is that whilst Atran is at the forefront of those social scientists challenging the rational choice theory that dominates economics with mechanisms of irrationality, the aim of the challenge is still to develop economic models that would steer irrational people in rational directions. Again, is that not ultimately self-contradictory and so self-defeating?

I asked Atran about such high level critiques, and he acknowledged they pose open questions.

I suspect it is possible to challenge the evolutionary story about the value of a moral deity, too. Rather than seeing belief in a moral deity as what is referred to as a 'privileging of the absurd' - absurd beliefs generate evolutionary advantage and so stick - isn't it possible to interpret the emergence of sophisticated religions as the vehicle by which homo sapiens emerged from the black and white world of 'kill or be killed' into the morally complex world that characterises a rich humanity. Further, subtle religious systems that are resistant to being turned back into black and white beliefs should be nurtured, and importantly, for the sake of a rich religious life. This was a point picked up by our second speaker, Sara Savage, whose fascinating work I will be returning to for sure.

But whatever big evolutionary story you care to tell, there is a clear message: equipping those vulnerable to being so radicalised with the confidence and skills to embrace more sophisticated views of the world should be an imperative.

(Image: Choppers by John D. Kurtz IV)


Monday, August 22 2011

Tales of deradicalisation

Day two of the seminar on religious violence was, to my mind, dominated by the immense courage of Feriha Peracha (above). She runs a deradicalisation school in the Swat valley, Pakistan. Her stories of trauma and violence amongst kids are as bleak as it is possible to imagine, and then some. An NPR piece here tells more, though Dr Peracha insisted ending on an optimistic note: kids can be re-integrated.

Listening to her was to be reminded that hidden by the horrors that emerge almost daily from Pakistan there work individuals of substantial bravery and compassion, a source of hope.

Next spoke Russell Razzaque, the London psychiatrist who has been very involved in advising on the Prevent strategy.

The potential for terrorism here is very different from the actuality in Pakistan. And, in fact, if there is one message coming out very clearly from the seminar it is that apparently similar activities, like suicide bombing, are really enormously disparate phenomena. Poverty may play a major role, or none at all. Education, religion and political ideology similarly.

The problem in the UK might, though, be summed up in a word: alienation. It seems to emerge particularly amongst second generation immigrant communities. Young Muslim men are exploited often at college or university, where radical groups offer them acceptance when before they had felt rejection, and purpose when before they had felt lost.

Of course, it is only a tiny fraction of lads who are radicalised. Most, like Dr Razzaque himself whilst training as a medic, become aware of the radicalisation groups and recognise their view of the world as ridiculous.

Some of Razzaque's aside comments struck me as not so frequently discussed. He thought that young Muslims with no religious education are particularly vulnerable as they have no knowledge against which to judge the extreme interpretations of the Koran taught by radicals. He also thought that British attitudes to alcohol might play a part in the problem the UK has seen. There is virtually no social activity that young people engage in that does not involve alcohol, often in quantity. This can cause great problems for Muslims, compounding feelings of exclusion.

Razzaque ended optimistically too, believing that the Arab spring undermines radical ideology. It shows Muslims around the Mediterranean rallying to national and democratic causes, the precise opposite of Al-Qaeda goals. Moreover, such groups have, so far, been notable by their absence. They seem irrelevant - though writing on the morning when Libya is falling to partly unknown groups, caution seems wise. More hangs on the outcomes of the Arab spring even than the future of the countries directly involved.


Sunday, August 21 2011

The mind of a fundamentalist

One of the ideas that struck me as particularly illuminating, from the first day of the seminar on religious violence I'm attending, concerned fundamentalism*. Scott Appleby told of a Jewish writer who observed that the practice of his religion has shifted from being mimetic - learnt from his family with the air he breathed - to being performative, essentially a case of doing right by a rule book. The shift happens as a result of the dislocation and alienation people experience as they are buffeted by rising pluralism and increased mobility.

The change might be generalised to other faiths, the performative approach placing great store on specifics - in other contexts, I imagined the huge importance that wearing a veil or a crucifix comes to carry. More subtly, faith stops feeling like a way of life that holds you, and becomes a way of life you must hold onto. Not far on from that are feelings about being at odds with the world, and then that the world is at odds with you.

A similar pattern is seen with tokens, those moral issues - abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia - that are not about what you do, because the fundamentalist/conservative is not going to admit those themselves, but rather about what you believe. (Incidentally, it seemed pretty clear to me that scientistic conservatism has its own tokens too, in its loathing for beliefs like creationism. No doubt, there are 'liberalist' tokens as well - the absolutisation of rights, perhaps.)

Such tokens represent deep concerns that the believer has about the way things are in the world, what the Pope calls the culture of death, for example. At an existential level, they become so inflated because objection to them is also a way of saying 'you are not hearing me' or 'I fear for my place in the world'. Nothing less than the whole person feels under threat.

I also wondered whether tokens are a way of staving off how believers, probably unconsciously, themselves feel compromised by the way things are in the world, because they are implicated in it too. For example, it is often noted by pro-gay folks that injunctions against usury are far more widespread in the Bible, and yet Biblicists never seem that bothered by them: much more seems to stand or fall by the relatively rare ones against homosexuality. Here, the logic of the token issue of homosexuality also allows the individual to contain any sullied feelings arising from their own usurious practices - pension, mortgage, credit cards and the like - which is a fancy way of saying they blame it all on homosexuality!

Anyway, some such dynamics seem to be at play in the culture wars.

*Appleby also encouraged us to avoid using sweeping terms like fundamentalism; there is probably no such thing, but rather fundamentalisms. Sorry.

(Image: David Woroniecki, son of preacher Michael Woroniecki, with instructive sign for football fans on Michigan State's campus, by Saraware)


Saturday, August 20 2011

Platonic love, Plato's 'code' and Paul's sexual liberation

'Platonic love', to Plato, does not mean friends breath a sigh of relief because they share no erotic entanglements. Friends, you fool yourselves, he believes. Rather, it means sublimating the erotic energy between two people to pursue not each other, but together, life itself.

This much is clear from, say, a read of the Phaedrus, and it is handy that Jay Kennedy's analysis of the musical patterns embedded in Plato's Symposium confirm that Plato was not against human love, as the view associated with the scholar Gregory Vlastos has it, but wished to channel it. (I see that Kennedy is still 'cracking the Plato code' and discovering 'hidden doctrines', which is good marketing, won lots of headlines last year, I hear secured a big book deal and Holywood interest because it is fun, in a Dan Brown way - and like Brown, wildly overplays the hand.)

'Plato divided each of his writings into 12 parts,' Kennedy explains, 'inserting a symbol marking a musical note at each twelfth. At harmonious notes he placed positive ideas such as love and goodness, while at dissonant notes he placed negative ideas such as rejection, quarrelling and evil.' In the Symposium, comments about trading sex for favour or advantage are placed at dissonant notes; expressions of erotic love's abiding desire for another's soul are placed at harmonious notes.

Platonic love is, in fact, a notion of relatively recent invention. Kennedy continues: 'At the beginning of the modern era, women cleverly used Plato’s reputation as a genius to get men to pay attention to their minds. Platonic love was an argument for not settling down and allowing women to participate in arts and culture in the royal court. When sex often meant an early death, Plato was a licence for having more fun.'

Which also goes to show that historic attitudes towards sex are more subtle and inventive than we moderns, so proud of our free attitudes towards love, can allow them to be. This came out in Will Self's review of Catherine Kakim's Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. He notes that for Hakim 'Christian monogamy' is just a strategy to ensure that all men, who are more ugly on average, get a woman, who are more beautiful.

Except that, if anything, the Biblical imperative is not for monogamy but for not marrying at all. As Peter Brown shows in his brilliant The Body and Society, when Jesus discouraged marriage by example (sorry Dan) and Paul by teaching, they encouraged a practice that was liberating for women, for whom marriage - like medieval sex - often meant early death.

It was also socially disruptive, because women, on average, had to have quite a few children by quite a young age, just to preserve population levels.

(Image: Mosaïque de la muse Euterpe de la salle Rameau)


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