Saturday, 28 April 2012

Melanie Phillips on intolerance towards religion

Melanie Phillips has written an essay on the current prevalent intolerance towards religion, as seen in the writings of scientist Richard Dawkins, but which is in fact quite widely spread. I've much sympathy for the initial impulse behind her piece, but I think that she gets a few things wrong, and that there is a far stronger case for religion, which has been lost in the silliness of this debate.

Francis Crick's "directed panspermia" theory was one of his odder hypotheses, to be sure. It's a workable idea, just not one for which we have any evidence. Crick was a theorist, a very brilliant and very logical one, and I think he didn't much like the improbability of the complex biological mechanisms he'd made his name discovering. As with the puzzle of how the eye evolved by a series of small steps, it's hard to see how DNA, RNA, and all the proteins and processes of the human body evolved over time. Just because this is a mystery, of course, doesn't mean that it's insoluble, so the panspermia idea was arguably a kind of scientific impatience from Crick.

Phillips' argument (maintaining that the wilder theories of science are "fantasy") seems populist to me, or perhaps it is simply that she doesn't understand the space between science and religion. Few do.

She touches on one thesis - much beloved of some on the left, actually - that I don't much like. It is this idea that science is of no more value than any other 'narrative', which seems to allow those working in humanities departments the  freedom to say or think whatever they wish - freed from the constraints of any logical and evidential basis. This may be a wonderful freedom for the lazy minded, but not much use for actual scholarship and science. The differences between science and other narratives are simple: science makes verifiable observations, and constructs theories that make verifiable predictions

Even so, it seems to me quite correct to say that Dawkins' tiresome intolerance and blinkered intellectual bullying seem as narrow-minded as the attitudes of the worst religious bigot. If you believe in freedom of thought, you have to practice what you preach. So to, the progressive left seem to thrive on social pressure to believe their version of events. According to them, they are both rational and caring.

There are a couple of reasons for this misguided debate between science and religion. From the start, Darwin's theories got a rather mixed reception from the church, and the famous debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Wilberforce in Oxford seems to have set the attitudes of many British biologists against religion in general, which is seen solely as a theoretical adversary. It is surely far more than that.

(This minor controversy concerning Darwin's theories echoes the previous dispute between Galileo and the church on whether the earth was the centre of the universe. One other case where the church opposed good science. But I'd argue this is quite rare)

My feeling is that these biologists (some are the pride of UK 20th century scientific endeavour) miss out on almost everything that Christianty is, by focusing on this small part of the belief system. Some then go on to vaguely wave their hand in the direction of the middle-east and say how much trouble religion has caused there - when the truth is that religion has just given human nature a reason to take sides and persecute, and if the religious aspect had not existed, people would have found another reason to take sides and fight - as people often do.

So we can't blame religion for all wars, as some unsophisticated 'rationalists' claim. But when they do a U-turn and  state that religion had no effect on the development of music, art, literature, society, and law they sound particularly desperate. There really does seem to be a strong influence - from religion - on all these areas, and of course on the development of science itself.

But even though science is brilliant at making observations, theories and predictions that come true, it is wrong to see religion as simply a rival to science. It may have attempted to fullfil those roles long ago, but it's power is in it's ability to transform many individual personal lives, and give sense and purpose to them in a way that science cannot do, since it only describes how things are, not what to do about them. Since we are human beings,  and need such a sense of purpose, religion will still be around for some time.

Though religion ought to stop trying to compete with science on it's own territory (many religious teachers haven't twigged to this) it thus certainly has a future of some sort. Though Phillips says correctly that if we start to make  a religion of some simplistic unscientific idea like Marxism, or for that matter feminism or egalitarianism then we may be in serious trouble. These religions do indeed provide us with all the dogma and intolerance of some religious orthodoxies, and none of the spiritual solace.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

How an ideology-driven broadcaster might work

A little while back now, I worked for a public-sector quango producing statistics and reports for other people in very similar jobs to look at. One feature of this job was the unsurprising left-wing flavour of the conversation there, another was the curious authoritarian atmosphere. The woman in charge of the (rather female heavy) group was a fine person, but slightly intimidating.

To illustrate why, take morning coffee. Most bosses grudgingly accept coffee breaks as one of those things to be tolerated, like haemorrhoids or Laurie Penny. But actually in this job attendance at morning coffee was compulsory. Despite the bosses' diminutive size, her habit of singing happily over her desk, and the fact that you could imagine her knitting there quite happily, there was a quiet that came over this whole matriarchy when her will was expressed - there was NO WAY you would contradict it.

At these strictly enforced chats over coffee, which the boss-lady presided over (and dictated the tone and topic of each day's chat) there was a on-your-best-behaviour-or-else atmosphere. It was somehow required that you contribute, and you would try jolly hard to say things that met with approval - both general and from on high. This meant having an intelligent observation to make - but also one that fitted the prevailing political feeling. And it may not surprise readers to learn that boss-lady was a strongly political reader of the Guardian newspaper.

The designated topic one day seemed to be the pre-eminence, in athletics, of black people. Well I remember the nods of approval when I found something to say about Ussain Bolt. There was no doubt I was fitting in by saying it - rather than mentioning the extraordinary record of white males in gaining Nobel prizes.

The reason I tell this story is that I've been pondering how those in charge of a TV/radio broadcaster might encourage employees and writers to come up with dramas that fit their ideological slant. Now this is pure hypothesis on my part but may turn out to be useful. A political slant in some news coverage is interesting, but in a way easier to understand - if only in terms of journalistic incompetence. But allowing a political slant to enter into dramatic output seems more in the spirit of 1984 or Uncle Joseph himself

It doesn't, I think, take a great deal of imagination to read my story of the awkwardly political coffee mornings, and to start to understand how employees can be pressured into adhering to an ideology in their work. And not just through a dominating boss or bosses.

It might be that the rules - as so often - are left unspoken most of the time, lest an email be leaked and .. ermm .. misinterpreted. Far more effective if staff are left to guess the rules - in the competitive scrabble for position in their careers they are sure to fall in line pretty quickly. These staff may be the ones choosing or commissioning which dramas are shown, for example. 

Thus, unaccountably, the employee will do well, who introduces a drama with the requisite focus on particular designated victim groups (blacks, Muslims, etc). And it helps if the drama contains 'acceptable' representations of gender, race, and sexuality. So members of groups thought (by our hypothetical broadcaster) to be commonly racially stereotyped, will often need to be portrayed in an entirely positive light IN A DRAMA. The justification for this will be to fight said stereotypes.

By contrast, the employee who suggests airing a drama dealing with working-class British heroism in - say - the Falklands conflict, will be ignored. Other employees soon get the idea, and - fearful for their careers - toe the line. The same pressures consequently tell on writers of these dramas. Preference will quietly be given to the more ideologically sound work - and we all know well how this kind of interference leads to a far worse dramatic work.

So our hypothetical broadcaster is in great danger of feeding us ideologically sound drama, but of worthless quality. In my next pieces, I will look at both some possible effects of this kind of censorship, and some of the thinking behind it.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Marxism without the nasty bits!

Readers may be interested to know that the University of Kent has a course on Marxism as part of a 'Social Sciences' degree. No doubt there's a good reason for this but it's puzzling how the course aims to

"enable [students] to assess both the contemporary and historical significance of Marxism in world politics"


"Students are not expected to demonstrate any detailed knowledge of the history of Marxist-inspired governments, regimes or political movements"

We wouldn't want any practical experience to influence our discussion of the historical significance of Marx. Might give us the wrong impression.