Sunday, 24 June 2007

Another cup of tea, vicar?

One of the valuable things about teaching or writing is that it forces one to formalise concepts that were previously held in an informal or intuitive way. It's not much use talking about (or evangelising) things that you haven't got sorted in your own head. In the process of teaching, these concepts gain in solidity, become refined or even significantly modified. Every time I've given a presentation or seminar at school, university or work I've come away understanding more about the subject I've been teaching.

I've been ranting about religion and related matters for years now but since writing in this blog I've been obliged to revisit a number of concepts so I can express them more clearly. One of these is faith versus agnosticism versus atheism. There's been a lot of talk about it all recently and for my part I've been thinking about it a lot; in particular my own position.

In an earlier post I described myself as an agnostic because for years I've simply labeled myself as such. I'd not given it much thought for a long time and it could be said I'd "rusted" onto the position in rather the same fashion as many who profess a religious conviction. I've been confronted with the need to reconsider my position and obviously if I'm going to move it'll be in the direction of atheism. At first I thought I was experiencing a backlash against all the religious hoohah that's besetting the world right now and felt a little embarrassment at the thought of championing atheistic dogma at the cost of my "scientific integrity". However...

When I was a child I believed in God because I was told to. The same people told me about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Bogeyman and others. As an adult I would be considered retarded if I claimed that I believed in any of the above except God. Why is that? What's so special about Him, other than that the writing about Him is in larger books with smaller text and no pictures? (And where does He get off with taking ownership of a personal pronoun?) I may as well believe in Ganesha ("Mr Simpson, please do not offer my god a peanut."), the Invisible Pink Unicorn or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. All are equally believable and their existence unverifiable.

Once again I find myself thanking Bertrand Russell for putting this in context by positing the celestial teapot - a suitably absurdist analogue of this conundrum.

There's lots to say about God but lately I've reached the point where if you asked me what or who God is I'd have to say "God is a spiteful, petty, hypocritical and vindictive bastard who's got serious self-worth issues." If God exists I want nothing to do with him and may he strike me down for saying so. If he doesn't and I get to finish this post, then he doesn't exist (or is a total wimp) and thus I am utterly justified in being a newly-declared atheist.

Friday, 8 June 2007

So, what are you wearing?

Or: "Anyone for tennis?"
Have you ever stopped to consider the origin of clothing? I don't mean animal skins and body paint, but more recent and, perhaps, more practical styles. I read an article somewhere a while ago that explained fashion in purely socio-economic terms: that it was driven by leisure, or "sport". Apparel that starts as casual gradually becomes accepted for general use. (Perhaps what I'm really talking about is the evolution of clothing.)

There are many examples, so I'm just going to name a few. You should be able to find many more, once you know what to look for.

Let's start at the generic male coat jacket, which I'm sure any reader can lay their hands on. Try this: put it on, unfold the collar and lapels around your neck and pretend it has a top button done up. Go and look in the mirror and you'll see an 18th century military officer looking back (minus, I suspect, the moustache and dueling scar). When off-duty they'd fold down that high collar and undo a few buttons. Others would see the dashing, sophisticated and presumably well-off military type presenting himself in this raffish fashion and emulate it.

Then there's the "morning coat" and the top (or riding) hat: both were initially practical gear for horse-riding. The morning coat had a split tail so it spread across the flanks of the horse, rather than bunching up. The top hat is simply a silk-covered version of the riding hat, which was a crash helmet of sorts. Initially these were worn by those who actually needed (and could afford) them: the aristocrat who had the time and money to ride horses for recreation. Others adopted this dress to give the impression that they were also wealthy or aristocratic, though they perhaps had never ridden a horse at all, or even been to the country. As more and more people adopted this dress it became standard and formal, eventually being considered too formal for riding!

In the latter half of the twentieth century we saw the same happen with the polo shirt, baseball cap and tennis shoes. Initially limited to specific forms of leisure activity they're now standard garb, if not even a sort of uniform for many. Polo is still a rich man's sport, tennis only slightly less so, and baseball caps are worn in places where they wouldn't even know the game existed.

Right now I'm wearing shoes originally designed for kayaking. They're very comfortable (and have drawn a compliment on my "cool shoes" by one young and stylish person of my acquaintance) but I sincerely doubt that I'll ever be within a hundred yards of an actual kayak. Nor do I ever intend to be, but history shows that there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Friday, 1 June 2007

The Root of All Evil

Richard Dawkins' documentary "The Root of All Evil?" was on television recently. It's apparently a companion piece to his book "The God Delusion". (I'm sure the T-shirt is already available.)

I've read a few of Dawkins' books - "The Blind Watchmaker", "The Extended Phenotype" and "The Selfish Gene" - and find his arguments hugely compelling and largely irrefutable. (That I have a B.Sc. in Biology with a particular focus on genetics may incline me to such agreement, of course.) I haven't read "The God Delusion" and in the documentary he's rather inclined to hyberbole and emotion but overall I heartily agree with his thesis that religion is the source of much of the ills that beset mankind.

Obviously, given my general theme here, it's his exasperation at the pigeon-holing of children that resonates with me most. Why do we label children as Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. when they haven't the faintest idea what such labels mean?

Lies to children? More like lies about children.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Behavioural Relics

Lately I've been writing about those things people do because they've been told to. I've been calling them "Lies to Children" and as I cast about looking for examples another type of ritualistic and unquestioned behaviour keeps coming up. They could best be described as "behavioural relics" and I find them as fascinating as the Lies.

Consider the military salute. Why do soldiers raise their hands to their temples when acknowledging a superior? It's widely understood that this is a relic of the middle ages when men wore armour and their helmets had visors. In order to identify oneself to a trusted person, or pay obeisance to a superior, it was necessary to lift the visor with the hand. This physical action is the salute; it's just that now there's no visor to lift. This action has evolved and diverged over the years and amongst its descendants we find the action of a man doffing his hat, and the further remnant of that in the form of simply touching the brim to acknowledge someone.

One of the the first expositions of the concept of behavioural remnants that I can recall was in the televison series "Dr Who" episodes entitled "The Face of Evil". In it he encounters the survivors of a lost planetary expedition that have split over time into the "Tesh" (technicians) and the "Sevateem" (survey team) tribes. When members of the Sevateem greet the Doctor they perform a salute that he immediately recognises as "the sequence for checking the seals on a Starfall Seven spacesuit".

Here are actions that once had an immediate, important physical origin. Over time the physical need has long vanished and been forgotten whilst the action has remained in use. The tribe names themselves echo the concept of a specific meaning lost over time.

Hardly a day goes by when I don't find myself shaking hands with someone. Why do we do this? It's apparently because in order to shake hands we had to have dropped our weapon - a spear, a knife, a gun - and in doing so we prove our friendliness and lack of aggression towards the person we are greeting. Baden-Powell, when he founded the Boy Scout movement acknowledged this meaning and inverted it by advocating a left-handed handshake. The reasoning was that the warrior who freed his left hand had dropped his shield and thus sends the message that he trusts the other with his life.

Until recently I would have told anyone who stayed still long enough to listen that the "two-fingered salute" had its origins in the Battle of Agincourt, when the archers on the losing side had their first and second fingers removed so they couldn't cock their bows any more. Showing that you still had those two fingers was a virtual "Nyah nyah nyah - ya missed me!" to an enemy and a powerful demonstration of defiance. I was going to include it here but a little further research strongly suggests that this was not the case and that the gesture has a far earlier origin that has yet to be satisfactorily analysed.

Damn. I really liked that explanation.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Keeping It Clean

In 1978 my father took up a three-year academic post at a university in Malaysia. Mum, me and my younger sister went along and we lived a pretty standard western suburban life just outside Kuala Lumpur.

It was much what we were used to, with the exception that we ended up employing a live-in housekeeper/maid, locally called an "amah". She was a twenty-something Tamil Indian girl called "Meena", who cooked, cleaned and washed for us. She had a dazzling smile, a stereotypical macho Indian boyfriend and cooked the best damn' curried fish I've ever tasted. She was very sweet but rather poorly educated by our family's standards.

She was also a Hindu and though I never entered her living quarters I wouldn't have been surprised to have found in there a small shrine to her personal Hindu deity. Her upbringing had obviously been typical of most Indians I meet to this day, in that she was totally respectful of her parents' wishes and accepted all of their wisdom and teaching without question.

My sister inevitably established the typical coterie of giggling schoolgirl friends, who often came to visit our home after school. They were of mixed ethnicity and economic background and not a few treated amahs like furniture, as their parents did. Meena, like all amahs, respectfully tolerated pretty much anything dished out to her by her 'superiors'.

It happened that the father of one of my sister's friends became sick and died soon after, of a heart attack. The following day all the other girls gathered at our house to go in a group to pay their respects at her home, in accordance with local custom. When my mother told Meena of this the result was quite unexpected: when the girls returned Meena wouldn't let them into the house.

She insisted that the girls go into her living quarters and get undressed so she could wash all their clothes. The girls had to wash as well - face, hands and feet. Meena was utterly adamant about this. The girls protested but mum quickly sized up the situation and insisted that they do as Meena insisted, which they did amidst much giggling. Fresh towels and sarongs were distributed and only then were the girls allowed into the main house. Once their clothes were washed and dried they could change back into them.

What makes a meek, compliant maid take such a strong and uncompromising stand for no immediately apparent reason? Mum provided the interpretation and explained it to the girls afterwards. They'd been to a house in which a death had occurred and Meena was responding ritually to the situation.

In the days before modern sanitation, antibiotics and antiseptics, the death of anyone who was not elderly was, more often than not, a result of an infection or contagious disease. This may have been quite the norm in the populous, subtropical India of Meena's ancestors. Anyone who had been in close contact with the deceased or who had even been in the same location would be at risk of transmitting the disease to others. One of the best counters to this transmission is cleansing the clothes and body before any subsequent contact with people or places. It's quite a sensible thing to do, even if you don't understand why.

Meena herself could not explain exactly why she acted the way she did. The fact that heart attacks are not contagious had no bearing at all on her response to the situation. All she knew was that "this is what is done" in such circumstances. It's what her parents and grandparents did and there was no reason to not do the same, nor reason to question it.

There's actually no advantage in having a reason, because that offers the opportunity to make judgement calls on the relative risk. No, it's much simpler to say "This is what you do" in every case and leave it at that. Undoubtedly it was the Hindu priests and other authority figures who realised the practicality of the act and its benefits, then established the rule and ritualised it.

Obviously there was no possibility of contamination in this case, no contagion whatsoever and thus no need for such behaviour, but the ritual response persists. In this instance Meena's behaviour had no tangible benefit or effect, apart from amusing some teenage girls for a while. It certainly didn't hurt anyone. What is more significant and important, though, is that it gave real comfort to her and allowed her to assert herself (for a change). She obviously held a professional responsibility not only for the house she maintained, but to the people who lived in it - her employers. That she didn't recognise nor appreciate the underlying reason for her actions is yet more evidence of the prevalence and usefulness of "Lies to Children".

Sunday, 15 April 2007

A Burning Issue

Whenever I attend a funeral these days it tends to be at a crematorium. I like the idea of cremating the dead: it's clean and saves on valuable real estate. If you've ever been to a truly large cemetery you may appreciate what I mean. I've visited Highgate Cemetery in London and it's huge and a tourist venue in its own right. What it represents in land values boggles the mind. In Sydney there's a cemetery that's so large it has its own postcode! (Why the dead need their own postcode raises some interesting questions...)

A while ago I returned to work after a funeral and had been thinking about the whole cremation "biz" on the way. My neighbour in the cubicle farm at work is a devout Muslim so I asked him if it was still the case that Muslims didn't cremate their dead.

He replied that it was and when I asked why, he started talking about keeping the corporeal self intact for Judgement Day and the Resurrection and such things. He pretty much anticipated my next question and said that no, suicide bombers were largely exempt, as would be the victim of such an event as a shark attack. Pretty neat, huh? Work then got in the way (don't you hate that?) so we didn't continue the conversation at that point.

The notion of cremation rattled around in my mind for the next hour or so and then suddenly I made a logical connection. A quick check of Wikipedia more or less confirmed my realisation: cremation tends to be proscribed by the religions that originated in arid regions where fuel for burning is scarce - for example: Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Islam.
"Sorry, guys, there aren't enough trees around here for you to burn your dead. We need it for cooking food to keep everyone else alive."
It's too difficult to explain to a grieving family stuck with a corpse that they can't waste valuable resources by burning it. Just tell 'em "God says you mustn't." and the economics takes care of itself.

It's quite simply too expensive and uneconomic to waste valuable firewood on a dead body, and I'm not sure that camel dung burns hot enough to do the job effectively. What's more, in a dry climate the corpse will dessiccate and mummify quickly enough that it doesn't pose much of a health hazard. There also tends to be a lot of unused land in arid regions - ideal locations for a necropolis or three.

Religions in other geographies - mostly temperate - were all for cremation, and where they weren't it appears to have been a temporary philosophical objection that quickly reverted as fashions changed. Tropical areas aren't quite as big on cremation, admittedly, but that's probably because rainforest material doesn't burn that well and anything left out in the jungle returns to the biosphere that much quicker anyway.

Armed with this I revisited the subject with my Muslim colleague. "I've figured it out." I said, to which he retorted "There you go on another one of your flights of fancy about religion."

Irony is a wondrous thing.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Lies To Children

When I was a child I believed in God. It soon occurred to me that I did so because I had been told to. No-one, though, ever gave me compelling proof that he existed. So I became doubtful.

When I was aged twelve my father enrolled me at a new school (owing to organisational circumstances - ordinarily it would have been my mother's job). He was filling in the enrolment form smoothly until he stopped, pen poised, and leant over to ask me, almost guiltily, "What religion are you, son?". It not being anything like any question I had ever been asked before, I shrugged and said "Dunno." He set his shoulders and replied "Let's put C of E, then."

That was the moment I realised that I was free to choose my religion, independent of anyone. Sure, my parents were ambivalent - probably atheists - and had never addressed the notion at home, and my grandmother was a social Christian like all "good people", but this was a revelation to me.

For the next two years I would tell anyone who asked that I was a Buddhist. But it didn't take (it's impossible to live a western lifestyle and adhere to any form of Buddhist philosophy). By age fifteen I had drawn the conclusion that God didn't exist so I would put "Atheist" on any form that asked my religion. This ruffled one or two feathers during high school and I rather enjoyed that.

University came and went and by the end of it my understanding of the scientific method had taught me that being an atheist - essentially declaring that God did not exist - was as dogmatic a position as saying he/it did. Thus I have labeled myself as an agnostic ever since. "If God taps me on the shoulder I would be a fool to deny his existence." Evidence is everything.

If I apply simple logic to the question of the existence (or necessity) of [any] God of humans I invariably come to the conclusion that he is an irrelevance, an invention, a crutch. Bertrand Russell crystallises my thoughts on the matter of God and religion when he says
"My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race."
I need only look to the Middle East, Northern Ireland, the Spanish Inquisition, the Taliban and countless other instances to see this disease festering and fettering humanity.

Yet I live in a society whose very structure and continued survival is predicated on Judeo-Christian ethics. I cannot deny them and believe them utterly essential to our continued survival. I often flatter myself that I am a better "Christian" than many of those who go to church every Sunday. I certainly know more about Christianity and the Bible than most because I have had such a need to better understand this conceptual framework that has dominated, driven and determined western history and culture. Far too many Christians I have met believe because they've never asked themselves about it and have just been raised into the mindset. Sheep!

I acknowledge, nonetheless, that religion has been fundamental to almost everything I hold dear. How do I resolve this dichotomy between something so central to my society yet so damaging and illogical? I realise that religion is the glue that holds most societies together. Without it anarchy would probably be the result. How and why is this so?

The vast majority of humans are stupid, ignorant and uneducated. They are peasants, drones, sheep, automata - children. They don't have the education or time to indulge in rumination about the meaning of their existence or any sort of higher truth. Most of the time they are too preoccupied with the job of just living and surviving to spare the time or mental effort to indulge in philosophical ruminations. Plant, grow, harvest, eat, breed, survive.

So how do societal structures endure? How do we ensure that society and culture remains viable? In the absence of science and logic, religion steps in and imposes structures, strictures and scriptures to drive the masses along the viable paths. This is achieved by applying the educational principle described as "Lies to Children". It's not a completely Bad Thing but we need to recognise it for what it is and what it has achieved.

I first perceived the principle in the course of being taught atomic theory in chemistry during High School. We were told that atoms connect together to make molecules. Each year we would be presented with a model for how the atoms connected and by the end of the year more and more discrepancies and illogical situations would become evident that weakened that model. The next year a revised model would be presented that resolved these but by the end of the year more discrepancies and problems would become evident in the revised model and the process would repeat - all the way to the first few years of university.

This process - successive "lies to children" - can only be truly recognised and its immense usefulness appreciated after we've grown and matured beyond our need for it. With knowledge of it we can now recognise it wherever it arises, and one of the prime areas where it is applied is in religion, or specifically, in religious proscriptions.

I've already posited that humans are stupid. A corollary of this is that there are many things that humans are wont to do that are stupid. Here are just a few examples: don't interbreed; don't waste natural resources; don't kill other people; don't eat things that are bad for you.

How do you stop stupid people doing these and other stupid things? You can't explain to them about genetics and birth defects, or why environmental damage is counterproductive, or where parasitic diseases come from. This is especially difficult if you don't fully understand them yourself despite compelling observational evidence collected over long periods. So what do you do?

You frighten people off bad behaviour by using the only weapon that is readily to hand: taking advantage of their innate fears, respect for authority, ignorance and superstitious natures. Ascribe a supernatural cause; pull rank; tell them "God said so." Use anything but reason and logic.

God says "Don't kill people." God says "Don't eat pigs." God says "Be nice to people." God says "Stop it, or you'll go blind." "Why?" "Because!" Initially it could be a mere convenience to achieve a definite social aim but after a few centuries the original purpose has been lost and the proscription remains in force, regardless of any continued need for it or possible relevance to the present society and technology.

I claim that I can take almost any seemingly arbitrary religious proscription and derive a social, environmental, political or economic justification for it. In future posts I will present examples of these. I don't claim that I am right, or that my interpretation may be correct or true. I'm not discounting the worth of the religious source. It's certainly not my intention to use it as "proof" of the non-existence of God. I intend it as exercise in logically deriving the origin of things that on casual and dispassionate viewing make no immediate sense; not eating pork, baptising children and not cremating the dead are just a few of the subjects I intend to analyse and present.