Monday, March 28, 2011

The trouble with religion

The trouble with religion is that it is many things, that it can be understood in many different ways, so it is very difficult to say anything unequivocal about it. This applies to religion in general, and to specific religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Recently I quoted some unequivocal remarks of a negative nature which Ernest Renan made about Islam (see 'Europe and Islam'). This 19th-century historian of religion and Semitic languages had an unfortunate penchant for rhetorical excess and did not restrict his negative remarks to Islam. He referred to the Pentateuch (the early books of the Old Testament) as "the first code of religious terrorism in history." Though he did praise certain later books of the Hebrew Bible, in which he saw the beginnings of a new, purified religion, I doubt that he had many Jewish friends. (Or any Muslim ones!)

One reason why it is difficult to talk in a sensible way about religion relates to semantics. Any common noun is defined by use - it does not necessarily have a meaning which it is possible to define precisely. I won't go into the intricacies of this idea, which Wittgenstein elaborated in his later writings, because I think it is relatively uncontroversial and really quite simple. We tend to think sometimes that, if there is a word, there should be a precise concept 'behind' that word. But this is not so. Think of the word 'game', and the numerous activities that may be described as games, from football to solitaire. What essential features do they have in common?

Likewise with religion: the traditions we call religions or denominations can be very different from one another and don't necessarily share an essential element. For example, there is a world of difference between someone who identifies as a liberal Protestant and who doesn't commit to any specific doctrines, and an evangelical Christian who believes in the literal truth of the book of Genesis, etc.

Another problem is that religion is intensely personal and bound up with self-image and identity. So an attack on a particular religion or set of beliefs can be (felt as) an attack on a person or people, though it is not meant as such.

The situation here is not dissimilar to that involving strongly held political views, and indeed some ideologies operate in a similar way to religions.

I have a broadly scientific view of the world in that I think the only justified beliefs are those for which there is empirical evidence of some kind. I recognize, however, that we have a propensity - maybe even a need - to believe things which go beyond reason and evidence.

Renan, for instance, valued science and renounced the idea of a personal God and all religious dogmas, but he retained a strong belief in something very like what Christians call providence. In a striking image, he compares us to operators at the Gobelins tapestry works in Paris, weaving the reverse side of a tapestry we do not see. This belief in the benevolent 'Machiavellianism' of nature leads to a sense of acceptance, a Stoic commitment to conform to nature's purpose. Like Hegel and other idealists, he believed that humanity is moving forward towards perfection through a succession of imperfect forms. Renan was astute enough, however, to see that human progress is no simple, straightforward matter, and spoke of 'oscillations', each advance being followed by a temporary setback.

In my view, Renan was right to reject dogmatic and institutional religion and to value science. But his metaphysical beliefs about nature's purpose, etc., while not incompatible with science and reason, strike me as wishful thinking, a comforting fantasy.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

They still hunt lions

Returning from my nightly walk, I passed a man walking his dog in the local park. The dog loomed up out of the darkness and, as it nuzzled my trousers, I noticed that it was not in the first flush of youth.

The man was smallish, neat, middle aged, with a military-style moustache.

"Are they still called Rhodesian ridgebacks?" I asked him.

"Indeed they are!" he replied, obviously pleased at my interest. "And they st- still hunt lions."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Europe and Islam

I have been reading Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Christopher Caldwell's account of post-World War 2 immigration and the resurgence of 'political Islam'. Caldwell makes the point that, until the latter part of the 20th century, Europeans had little praise for either Islam or Islamic civilization. The views of Ernest Renan, a philologist and historian of religion, were typical.

On March 29, 1883, Renan gave a lecture at the Sorbonne entitled 'L'Islam et la science'. "Those liberals," he said, "who defend Islam do not know Islam. Islam is the seamless union of the spiritual and the temporal, it is the reign of dogma, it is the heaviest chain mankind has ever borne. In the early Middle Ages, Islam tolerated philosophy, because it could not stop it. It could not stop it because it was as yet disorganized, and poorly armed for terror.... But as soon as Islam had a mass of ardent believers at its disposal, it destroyed everything in its path. Religious terror and hypocrisy were the order of the day. Islam has been liberal when weak, and violent when strong."

Of course, Islam has no monopoly on religious terror and hypocrisy, and arguably the Christian churches followed a similar pattern. The difference is that the Christian churches came to a fruitful and abiding accommodation with the rising secular culture in which they were embedded, preventing any "seamless union of the spiritual and the temporal", and allowing a space for notions of privacy and individual freedom.

By contrast, Islam - as it is all too often understood and practised - attempts to control every aspect of life and to bring not only individual and social behavior but also laws and government institutions into line with Koranic precepts.

For various reasons, Western populations generally took a benign view of Islam in the post-World War 2 era. One reason for this was post-imperial and post-fascist guilt; another was what Caldwell refers to as "an accident of history":

" ... In the 1950s, Arab nationalism, of the sort practised by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and the Ba'athist leaders of Syria and Iraq, was the main political force coming out of the Muslim world. It was driven largely by people who wanted to break theology's stranglehold on Muslim societies. Even if Arab nationalism was a threat, a young man ready to leave his nation to work in a mill in Belgium was unlikely to embody it. Europe's Arab and other Muslim newcomers could be assumed the most secular and modern of their countrymen, with a vocation to act as Europeans. Indeed, photos of groups of Moroccans and Turks newly arrived on Rotterdam's docks or in Rhineland train stations show clean-shaven men in conservative jackets and ties.

But right around the time immigrants began arriving in Europe en masse, a global resurgence of political Islam was beginning. It is now in full swing."

Those "clean-shaven men in conservative jackets and ties" no doubt felt great respect for European traditions and values. They were not to know that those very traditions and values would soon be under threat, from external forces, certainly, but also - and more importantly - because the Europeans themselves were losing faith in those values. In effect, Europeans had ceased to love and cherish their own civilization.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The disposable academic

I tend to avoid Special Christmas Double Issues, just as I tend to avoid Exclusive news reports. If it's exclusive it's probably a beat-up that no one else is interested in; and if it's part of a Special Christmas Double Issue then it's likely to be - well - like what you might find in a Giant Xmas Stocking: space-filling, bland, untargeted, not indispensable.

Leafing through - rather belatedly - just such a double edition (The Economist, Dec. 18, 2010), I came across an article on a topic of rather limited interest which nonetheless impinges on a topic of greater interest.

The article itself was a dreary tract about the way PhD students and postdocs are exploited as teachers and researchers, and then not offered real jobs. But the broader, more interesting question relates to the status and role of university teachers and researchers generally, tenured or not - to the future of university-based academics.

The article seemed to be somewhat at odds with The Economist's traditional approach in its (at times) complaining tone and in its feminist subtext.

"One female student spoke of being told of glowing opportunities at the outset, but after seven years of hard slog she was fobbed off with a joke about finding a rich husband." The anonymous - as is the custom at The Economist - author then refers to her own experience of having "slogged [clearly a favorite word] through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology." One would have thought that prospective PhD students would be better placed than most to take responsibility for their own decisions, and quite capable of assessing possible outcomes, relating to employment or anything else.

The author notes that the sorts of activities PhD students spend their time on (like writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and preparing regular literature reviews) do not produce the sorts of skills (like the ability to communicate with non-experts) which the job market demands.

She does ultimately, however, put the onus of responsibility where it should be put - on the individual student. Prospective PhD students "might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic."

But new PhDs and postdocs are disposable only because many classes of tenured academic are dispensable. Academics - especially in the humanities - have lost status. In a climate of economic stress and fiscal retrenchment, the future looks very bleak indeed for a category of professional whose prestige was inextricably linked to scholarly and intellectual values which are no longer current.

New values prevail in a harder and very uncertain world.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The odour of joss-sticks

In the light of recent discussion on this site about literary style and the relative unimportance of plot in fictional works (see the posts 'Rue de la Paix', 'Chilly, ain't it?' and comments), it is worth quoting the rather beautiful and deeply conservative epigraph which Dorothy Sayers chose for her Clouds of witness (1926):

The inimitable stories of Tong-king never have any real ending, and this one, being in his most elevated style, has even less end than most of them. But the whole narrative is permeated with the odour of joss-sticks and honourable high-mindedness, and the two characters are both of noble birth.

-- The Wallet of Kai-Lung

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Chilly, ain't it?

In a recent post ('Rue de la Paix') and accompanying comments, aspersions were cast on Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957). I highlighted what I saw as an anti-Semitic aside in one of her novels, and a scathing review by Edmund Wilson of a later novel was quoted in a comment.

I do not warm to Dorothy Sayers. She interests me only to the extent that any intellectually active figure of the time does. It is the period which fascinates me more than the individual. Sayers seems to have been an intelligent person with much energy and independence who (sadly to my way of thinking) was ensnared by religion, becoming in her later years an apologist for Christianity.

As a young women, however, she was (pace Wilson) a gifted writer with a quirky and interesting mind. Here are some extracts from one of the wittier passages of the novel Clouds of witness which Sayers wrote when she was in her early thirties. The book features Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayer's amateur sleuth, who manages to be at once extremely aggravating and - if you can look past the outmoded class perspective and linguistic mannerisms - rather funny. (Even likable at times.)

Wimsey makes his way to a farmhouse in the wilds of Yorkshire, past ...

... a stretch of rough, reedy tussocks, with slobbering black bog between them, in which anything heavier than a water-wagtail would speedily suffer change into a succession of little bubbles. Wimsey stooped for an empty sardine tin which lay, horribly battered, at his feet, and slung it idly into the quag. It struck the surface with a noise like a wet kiss, and vanished instantly. With that instinct which prompts one, when depressed, to wallow in every circumstance of gloom, Peter leaned sadly upon the hurdles and abandoned himself to a variety of shallow considerations upon (1) The vanity of human wishes; (2) Mutability; (3) First love; (4) The decay of idealism; (5) The aftermath of the Great War; (6) Birth control; and (7) The fallacy of free-will. This was his nadir, however ...

Continuing on his way, Wimsey reaches a farm gate:

A man was leaning over it, sucking a straw. He made no attempt to move at Wimsey's approach. 'Good evening,' said that nobleman in a sprightly manner, laying his hand upon the catch. 'Chilly, ain't it?'

The man made no reply, but leaned more heavily, and breathed. He wore a rough coat and breeches, and his leggings were covered with manure.

'Seasonable, of course, what?' said Peter. 'Good for the sheep, I daresay. Makes their wool curl, and so on.'

The man removed his straw and spat in the direction of Peter's right boot.

Wimsey finally gets the man to tell him the name of the man who lives in the house:

'Mester Grimethorpe.'

'No, does he now?' said Lord Peter. 'To think of that. Just the fellow I want to see. Model farmer, what? Where ever I go throughout the length and breadth of the North Riding I hear of Mr. Grimethorpe. "Grimethorpe's butter is the best"; "Grimethorpe's fleeces Never go to pieces"; "Grimethorpe's pork Melts on the fork"; "For Irish stews Take Grimethorpe's ewes"; "A tummy lined with Grimethorpe's beef, Never, never comes to grief". It has been my life's ambition to see Mr. Grimethorpe in the flesh. And you no doubt are his sturdy henchman and right-hand man. You leap from bed before the breaking day, To milk the kine amid the scented hay. You, when the shades of evening gather deep, Home from the mountain lead the mild-eyed sheep. You, by the ingle's red and welcoming blaze, Tell your sweet infants tales of olden days. A wonderful life, though a trifle monotonous p'raps in the winter ...

A certain anarchic energy, no?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank - once again

Britain's largest bank, HSBC, has signalled* its intention to move its headquarters back to Hong Kong where it was founded in 1895.

The bank's UK and European operations have been hindered by new taxes and regulations which have proliferated in the wake of the global financial crisis, and, of course, the European financial environment is fraught with unresolved sovereign debt and currency problems.

The move would be a major blow to London's standing as a financial center - and could be seen as symbolic of profound shifts in global wealth and prosperity away from Western Europe and the US and towards the Asian region.

HSBC's prospective move also reminds us that the time is rapidly approaching when Asian time zones will dominate global markets. Europe is particularly disadvantaged in this respect, as Asia goes to work when Europe is sound asleep. (Hong Kong - and the rest of China - is 8 hours ahead of London.)

* [added later] The signals, I must admit, are mixed. The original story - sourced to unnamed investors and carried by London's Sunday Telegraph - claimed that a move to Hong Kong was more than likely. Apparently, domicile is reviewed every three years, and the investors had noted a change of tone in favor of a move to Hong Kong. The bank has subsequently denied that any decision to move has been taken.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rue de la Paix

Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to be awarded a degree by the University of Oxford. She is most famous as a writer of detective fiction, much of it both stylish and funny.

I quote here, however, a rather unfortunate passage from Clouds of Witness (1926). The offending clause, so casual and gratuitous, may have passed in the 1920s, but strikes us today as totally unacceptable.

A detective is making inquiries at a jeweller's shop in the Rue de la Paix:

The majority of the staff failed to recognize the photograph, and Parker was at the point of putting it back in his pocket-book when a young lady, who had just finished selling an engagement ring to an obese and elderly Jew, arrived, and said, without any hesitation: 
'Mais oui, je l'ai vu, ce monsieur-là. It is the Englishman who bought a diamond cat for the jolie blonde.'