Let’s hear it for constitutional amendments (or: the Demands of Democracy)

It’s rather early on a Sunday morning, and I am already on the train to Cardiff, determined to get there in time to vote on a few constitutional amendments. Yes, it’s that time of year again – it’s a Liberal Democrat conference, of course, where debates on such issues might be thought of as part of an identity-forming ritual.

But it’s also much more than that, because the party famously and often rather inconveniently (as any Tory MP would probably be all too glad to tell you) practices direct democracy – and democracy needs thought, practice, constant maintenance and the continuing trust of all participants. Many consider this a matter for the nerds – but I think it lies in the nature of democracy that it has to be discussed and policed constantly, that it has to leave a complex trail, on paper or online today, on tablets of wood and stone when it was first practiced two and a half thousand years ago. Democracy requires committees and committee meetings, debates about procedures, agendas and minutes, protocols for speeches, presiding officers – in short, it brings in its wake many of those activities which people tend to find tedious (at best!) and often entirely offputting. Who wants to be stuck in a meeting for too long, especially when there is too much talk about procedure?

As an ancient historian, I can hardly fail to look back to the beginnings of democracy in ancient Athens. They ran their city’s affairs, a complex set of foreign policies in a world of hundreds of states, a large fleet, quite a few wars and a large empire on the basis of debate and decisions in their assembly of all citizens, a body which met (in our terms) about once a week, in meetings which started at sunrise and which could (occasionally only, one hopes) go on till sunset made it too dark to count the votes. Nevertheless, there was probably a regular turnout of several thousand, even before the Athenians started paying citizens for attending.

Ancient commentators (all wealthy, most aristocratic) were not impressed with democracy: they were not convinced that the uneducated masses really could make decisions better than a smaller elite of educated citizens who had the time and money to engage in full-time public life. But one has to appreciate how much dedication and attention it must have demanded to participate in such meetings – sure, we can’t be too optimistic that all voters really understood the issues, but even being there and following complex arguments for several hours demands considerable commitment and patience. It’s hard to calculate numbers, but a very rough estimate might suggest that it was realistic to expect 10% of all adult men with full citizen status to attend at least the more important meetings. This may look like a low turnout, but the commitment expected in this case simply doesn’t compare with the requirement to turn up once a year at most and leave a cross on a piece of paper, which regularly seems to be too much for 30-40% of our electorate.

In our first year module on Classical Athens, my colleague Tracey Rihll and I put our students through a crude simulation of this directly democratic process of decision making. We wanted to make sure that the debate actually matters, which is why we make the group of about 120 students draft their own exam paper by means of an Athenian-style assembly meeting.

The effect on the students is always fascinating – and many come away with the question how the Athenians could ever run their affairs in this way. Of course, our students are not experienced Athenian citizens, the whole procedure is not institutionalised and some of the ground rules have to be improvised on the spot, but what strikes most of them is how cumbersome the process is, how some will find it much easier to have their opinion heard and their proposal adopted, and how long it can take to tame the initial chaos of proposals and turn it into a list of questions which will give them the best chance to show how well they have understood what we taught them. We always hear frustrated comments about the process: some years ago a student tried to propose a motion to put the teachers back in charge and just let us draft the exam paper – they were, in essence, choosing tyranny over the cumbersome democratic process. One year, some people tried to stage (with tongue firmly in cheek, but still) an oligarchic coup and take over the decision making process.

The students often fail to appreciate that in the end, they usually do manage to draft a reasonable exam paper with six questions within about 45 minutes, which is actually rather efficient, given the complexity of the task.

I think what one learns particularly from such an improvised version of democracy is how important it is to have a set of rules and procedures in place, how important it is for everybody to understand what these rules are and to use them with goodwill and the interest of the group in mind, and for all to engage in a constant process of scrutiny – with participants being willing to understand and police the procedures while mainly focusing on immediate business at hand.

So yes, let’s hear it for the ostensibly boring constitutional amendments: the Athenians knew how to make fun of themselves for being permanently obsessive about laws and lawsuits, but they were proud of the fact that their system allowed them to scrutinise their leaders and (it has to be said) each other, too. When I sit and follow a debate about the intricacies of Liberal Democrat constitutional clauses, I can see the funny side of the apparently endless obsession with getting such details right. But in the end, this is a crucial part of the democratic process: democracy doesn’t come easy, and it  certainly demands a long attention span, attention to detail and a good deal of patience.

Posted in Democracy, Party Conferences | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A heroic trip to Swansea’s Quadrant Bus station

Last Tuesday (21st February), BBC Radio 4′s pm programme broadcast a memorable interview. It was part of their ‘take a leap’ campaign, challenging people to do something extraordiary on 29th February and tell the programme all about it.

The interview in question was with Jeffrey (I am merely guessing the spelling) who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder and therefore hasn’t managed for four years to take the half hour bus trip from his home to Swansea.  (EDIT: the BBC has now put a clip online: listen here, from 2:00)

Today, on Wednesday 29th February, he is planning to get on that bus and visit the Quadrant bus station in Swansea. He reckoned that he might even be able to get off the bus and have a coffee in the adjacent shopping centre before he travels back. It sounds like such a simple thing to do – but he described his condition very graphicly and it was quite clear just what a heroic feat this will be for him. If listeners’ reactions are anything to go by, ten thousands of people in the whole UK are now rooting for this one man to get to  Swansea’s Quadrant bus station today.

This story made me think back, too … Jeffrey hasn’t been to Swansea for four years - so he’ll still remember the old bus station: I hope the thought of that alone doesn’t keep him away.

It’s worth sometimes to remember the bad old days, just to keep appreciating that things can change for the better.

So here I am, remembering the old Quadrant bus station.

Oh the horror…

Swansea - old bus station

Swansea - old bus station. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

- The sheep pens to control the queues.
- The drafty doors which would blow open to let in cold blasts of wind and rain as a reward for those who dared to be first in line.
- The strategically placed ledges for the pigeons to do what pigeons do when people walk past underneath.
- The floor which seemed to be specially designed to be slippery when it was wet which, due to the leaky roof, it almost always was.
- The clock which had stopped, probably years ago, and had never been fixed.

And at night… – well, you didn’t want to be there. Somehow you sensed that in Quadrant bus station, nobody would hear you scream.

It’s worth remembering sometimes just how bad and soul-destroying architecture can be.

I still have the occasional flashback when I walk through the shiny new bus station, with its bakery, cafe and shop (open late, so the whole place feels safer), with its spaces fit to accommodate humans rather than sheep.

The new bus station

Swansea: new bus station - actually fit for humans.

It’s amazing how much difference architecture can make. It’s just one of the major changes which have happened recently in this devastated city - and yes, to give credit where it is due,  much of this happened with LibDems in charge (I can’t remember a Swansea run by anybody else, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course).

Still in spite of all efforts, Swansea was (and is in many respects) home to some of the worst urban development disasters I have ever seen. The old bus station was the very worst, though – as if Thatcher’s notion that anybody over 30 using a bus must be a failure had been cast in grey concrete, with the special aim to make those pathetic pedestrians suffer for their failure, too.

It’ll be a very long time before Swansea’s urban environment lives up to its amazing topographical setting. But a lot has happened since I moved here seven years ago – and in those four years since Jeffrey last made it to the Quadrant bus station.

Good luck, Jeffrey, with your trip today. I hope you make it, and I hope you will be pleasantly surprised!

EDIT: The BBC now has a full report of Geoffrey Harris’s story:

Posted in Swansea | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

How much does one pay for a parliamentary seat?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

This is clearly a question we have to ask  if we want to make sure that money cannot buy influence, a question we need to tackle if we want increased diversity in parliament.

I have been thinking about this for a while now, gathering some anecdotal evidence as I went along. Yesterday I came across an old article at Conservative Home which shows that the Conservative Party thought about this issue back in 2006 (hat tip to Alan Renwick, who linked it on twitter).

Their calculation was that at that point, a seat was likely to cost more than £ 40 000. – the article is worth reading, since it discusses all the various expenses – some of them probably unexpected for many.

I don’t know whether the Tories have brought these costs under control – but experiences of people who stood for the Liberal Democrats in past elections suggests that while things are done a bit differently in the LibDems, this estimate is not exaggerated – with no safe seats, many parliamentary candidates become full time campaigners long before the election campaign: houses are remortgaged, savings used up – some spend months sleeping on friends’ sofas to bring down living costs, some end up financially ruined if they don’t win the seat and can’t find a reasonably well paid job soon.

No safe seats – no cheap seats, either.

Well, many will now ask why this should matter: these people are ambitious and willing to pay for it – so why not? I am not suggesting that we should be awfully concerned for those who have already made it (pity for politicians? That would be a lost cause!).

But we should be worried about the impact on our political system, if personal wealth is (albeit not explicitly) a crucial selection criterion for those who are supposed to represent us all

How many people have a few grand at their disposal or know how to raise that kind of money from donors (preferably not dodgy ones who’ll demand favours in return)? How representative could they possibly be of the country?

I know too many people who’d make brilliant MPs, but don’t have much chance to get there under these circumstances.

Do we really want to select our parliament on the basis of relative wealth?

I know I don’t: it doesn’t sound like democracy to me.

Posted in Democracy, Money in Politics, Political Parties, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

In the Poet’s Own Hand?

Some time ago, I came across this photograph:

Iliad with 'autographed' stickerIt’s such an intriguing image – you wonder: was it just a mistake by some sales assistant, or was somebody in that bookshop making a very thoughtful comment on an age-old mystery?

Well, well…. just imagine.

What would the signature be like? What name would he write?
And would he be willing to sign the Odyssey as well?

At this point, I wonder whether we’d be any wiser if we read that his name was actually Melesigenes – how much, apart from a name, would he have to add to make us really any wiser about those epics?* We know already that whoever put them together was a genius in story-telling, but in the end, the Iliad and the Odyssey are the work of many nameless contributors: in a way, the Homeric mystery seems perfectly appropriate.

And yet… I’d love to see the signature in that book.


* I guess we would be rather surprised if he signed his name as Tigranes of Babylon – see Lucian’s little fiction experiment, Verae Historiae 2.20 (text here, scroll down to p.323).

Posted in Inventing the Past | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Well, I am back….

… sweeps away some cobwebs

I guess I have to apologise for leaving my blog behind for
so long.

It’s been a few busy weeks – any excuses I might make would make a localised version of many points made in this article:

Stefan Collini: The Threat to Our Universities (Guardian)

Posted in Education, Universities | Tagged | Leave a comment

Higher Education in the Marketplace

Sometime towards the end of the fifth century BC the young Athenian Xenophon encountered a man in a narrow side street. The man blocked his way and asked where every kind of food was sold. Once he had received a reply, he asked another question: ‘And where do men become good and honourable?’.  Xenophon was rather puzzled by this. ‘Follow me,’ said Socrates, ‘and learn’ (based on Diogenes Laertius 2.6.48).

Rafael, School of Athens, Detail: Socrates and pupils

Rafael: The School of Athens. Socrates and pupils.

The rhetorical questi0n about directions to the market – where food was sold - made sense in ancient Athens, since Socrates did indeed teach in the Agora – the city’s major marketplace. He spent his time there chatting to people – passers-by and a number of young men who regularly came to hear him, including, from this day on, the young Xenophon. Socrates’  teaching, at least as presented to us by Plato and Xenophon, consisted of questioning, of teasing out answers, of leading others, step by step, to new ways of seeing and understanding.

Today academics working in UK universities are also finding their way to the marketplace. But now it’s not fish and lentils that are being sold with incidental teaching merely going on at the edge of the square: we are getting ready to sell education itself . I have just come across a story from the USA which suggeststhat in such a market Socratic questioning might not always be quite so agreeable to the customers.

Inside HigherEd reports that an assistant professor at Utah Valley University was denied tenure (in effect this means he was sacked) because the students did not like his teaching.

They complained that … he asked  them questions in class even when they didn’t raise their hands. They also  didn’t like it when he made them work in teams.

Apparently, this university teacher deviated from the usual routine of lectures; he tried to stimulate discussion, asked students to prepare and made them engage actively with the arguments – a ‘Socratic’ method of teaching.

As we in the UK embark on our new adventure of teaching in a marketplace, do we have to worry that something similar might soon happen here? At the moment, innovative teaching styles are very much in demand, and – to give credit to our students - the general response to experiments and to attempts to break the routine of the lecture is usually very positive. And the most Socratic of all university teaching methods, the tutorial as practiced in Oxford and Cambridge, remains the gold standard in UK higher education.

There is, however, one sign that customer satisfaction might not always follow the traditional ideals of higher education: students and their  parents are increasingly eager to measure the fees they pay against the hours they spend in the presence of a lecturer. It is clear that in past years, when research was the only aspect of academia which was highly valued, some institutions neglected teaching; hours were cut and in some areas, students clearly had legitimate reasons for complaint. I understand that people now faced with increased fees want to know whether they get value for money. But merely counting hours, no matter the quality and type of teaching, is not a very effective measure of a good higher education. As universities collude with students in focusing on contact hours as a crucial measure of quality, we should be careful what we make them wish for.  The customer is king – but how do we make sure that customer-students understand the crucial properties of the product they are buying?

If higher education can give a student anything, it has to be independent thinking – a skill which has to be learned by, well, thinking independently. Lecturers and tutors have to make students think and engage – and then send them away to think some more on their own, work out problems on their own and start to look for information for themselves. No doubt, this is more work for individual students and might be awkward at times if you get caught out in a group discussion - but higher education ought to be an adventure, a journey of discovery, and the best of those can’t be undertaken without a willingness to take a certain amount of risk. Passive presence should not be sufficient for any student. Yet, this is what the students in Utah expected, and the university backed them up.

If the Higher Education market ends up encouraging a demand for more spoonfeeding and less independent thinking, as it seems to have done in Utah, the system will have failed. Socrates would not have found it acceptable in his marketplace, so much is certain.


Posted in Education, Universities | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Racism Row We Didn’t Need

Sometime yesterday evening, Diane Abbott, in a twitter conversation with her constituent Bin Adewunmi, expressed a rather insensitive view:

Diane Abbot's insensitive tweet (screencap)

Once the tweet was spotted, there was no halting the row.  Diane Abbott in thoughtless hyperbole shocker. As if she had never said something insensitive before! I think it was right that she was made to apologise: what she said was an unacceptable generalisation, and public figures say things like this at their peril.

However, the fact that Diane Abbott was wrong doesn’t make some of her critics any more right. I was amazed to see so many crocodile tears shed over Diane Abbott’s apparent racism against white people. Was her tweet racist? Technically it probably was.

But let’s not kid ourselves that we can so easily draw parallels: false equivalents are such an easy distraction, and this one looks intellectually dishonest at best and malicious at worst. Yes, a white MP uttering a simiular generalisation about black people would probably have got into more trouble. But this ’reversed’ example isn’t exactly equivalent, because there is a well-established context which makes a difference.

As a white person, I have never been at the receiving end of racism – none I can remember anyway, and certainly not the serious stuff that scars you for life. The fact that I can hardly imagine what it must be like was brought home to me pretty vividly just a few days ago, when I came across this article, asking a number of non-white Brits: “What’s the most racist thaing that ever happened to you?”.

Context and people’s experiences matter, which is why it seems a bit rich for so many white people to complain so loudly about Diane Abbott’s racism. ‘She has a chip on her shoulder’, some commented:  that phrase always suggests that the grievances aren’t justified, or that people who don’t manage to look beyond past injustices somehow aren’t behaving properly – ‘not done in polite society’, so to speak, especially not if somebody is perceived as having overcome the obstacles that were put in their way. Should we really dismiss collective grievances about very real racism so easily?

This is not an excuse for what Diane Abbott said – but we mustn’t forget the legacy of racism, either. When non-white people complain about a racist remark, all those memories are part of their complaint. A complaint about Diane Abbott’s crude generalisation about white people just doesn’t have the same context. It’s a complaint easily made, but it doesn’t have the same weight behind it, and we shouldn’t pretend that it does.

We mustn’t let one stupid insensitive remark devalue the memory of what happened, and still happens, to non-white people in this country. Least of all we should do so in the week two people were finally jailed for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, while, after almost two decades, at least three of his murderers are still free.

That trial yet again reminded us all of what damage racism can do in this country; and it seems as if, after all this the tension and painful collective self-reflection many were almost grateful for a release – a chance to throw some of the guilt back at those who like to act as a voice of concsience, particularly when the person in question likes to be rather sanctimonious at times.

I was shocked about the sense of glee in many  comments about Diane Abbott’s ‘racism’. As if all the campaigning against racism were no longer quite so valid because one high profile black person is ‘caught out’ saying something that expresses racial prejudice.  In the UK, we are usually proud of the fact that racism has become socially unacceptable in many contexts. But it’s disconcerting how much unease and dissatisfaction seem to lurk just under the surface, as so many seem to enjoy ‘turning the tables’, so to speak, if an opportunity arises.

What Diane Abbott tweeted was stupid, hypocritical and prejudiced. But let’s not get worked up about the ‘problem’ of racism against white people. It’s just a distraction – and we shouldn’t let ourselves be distracted from a problem that’s still far too serious to play political games with.

Posted in Current events, Immigration, Life in the UK, Politics | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Private University Fail (with a dose of political corruption)

The Austrian edition of last week’s Die Zeit (51/2011) contained an article on such a blatant example of a private university gone wrong that I decided to translate the whole article in order to give it a chance of some exposure.  My translation can be found here: if you are, like me, worried about private universities, have a look at the whole story - it is a pretty shocking cautious tale.

Die Zeit reports the story of Imadec University – founded by an ambitious university lecturer who used his excellent connections to the Austrian political Right to change Austrian laws about the accreditation of private universities. His private higher education institution, Imadec, was already settled in a posh castle in Vienna and, once accredited, started to dish out University degrees to the wealthy and influential. Soon there were good reasons to suspect that not all of its alumni had fulfilled approriate criteria to receive such a degree.

Yet this higher education enterprise had strong political support, not least because a number of young politicians of Austria’s centre-right party (ÖVP) and of the far right party (FPÖ) also received degrees there; and at least in one case (the ÖVP’s education spokesman of all people) it seems that a student was admitted in a blatant breach of Austria’s rules about qualifications required to go to university.  A number of more prominent politicians received honorary doctorates, in spite of a rule which does not allow private universities in Austria to grant honorary degrees.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi also received an MBA at Imadec: he was admitted in spite of his (then) broken English, and finished his degree in a mere 20 months: this was presumably the qualification which allowed him to move on to the LSE for his doctorate.  Gaddafi’s studies at Imadec led to a close connection between Muammar Gaddafi and the (now deceased) notorious FPÖ leader Jörg Haider: suspicious transfers of large amounts of money from Libya to Haider and his party followed.

In the end, it was due only to the opposition’s insistence on making university accreditation independent of government that Imadec finally lost its university status: its management structures, quality assurance and financial set-up were not considered sufficiently secure to allow it to continue, and that in spite of determined pressure from the many infuential friends and alumni of the institution.

The really worrying part about this story is just what a private university apparently can get away with if manages to court the rich and influential, and if you use a ‘university’ like this to forge a network of powerful supporters.

Coud it happen in the UK? I’d like to think that the British poitical system is less corrupt and allows a lot more scrutiny of politicians. But given that Britain’s university system  is currently undergoing such big changes, where increasing room is made for private universities, private higher education institutions and their links to business and politics will have to be watched very carefully. In a time of increasing financial pressures, we have already seen some less than acceptable deals with dodgy regimes on the part of public universities: do we have enough safeguards in place to monitor the behaviour of new private higher education institutions?

Posted in Austria, Politics, Universities | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Wolf in Shadow Chancellor’s Clothing

In an interview with the Independent yesterday Ed Balls has made the LibDems a not-so ‘big, open and comprehensive’ offer, asking them to cross the floor and to join Labour in a coalition.

I think it would be much better now and for the future of the country if they did. It would be in the national interest. I don’t think they should wait until 2015.  I don’t think it’s possible for Nick Clegg to lead that move.

I can’t help it – Ed Balls’s offer conjures up images of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf trying to pose as kindly grandmother to lure the little girl close enough so that he can snatch and eat her.

This also brings to mind a brilliant cartoon by Chris Riddell:

Little Clegg Riding Hood by Chris Riddell

Little Clegg Riding Hood, by Chris Riddell (Observer 7th July 2010)

Perhaps Ed Balls has to consider that after learning (the hard way!) to deal with one hungry wolf pack, Little Red Riding Hood will think twice about walking into the territory of a rival pack which seems not just hungry, but dangerously ravenous.

But it’s interesting how eager Ed Balls suddenly sounds; it doesn’t quite square up with his role in torpedoing the coalition talks in 2010 and his efforts to pour tribalist scorn over the LibDems at every possible opportunity – until about two weeks ago when these new conciliatory(?) noises began to emerge. The man has not given any impression of somebody who understands how coalitions work, and I can’t see any improvement now.

In particular, there is a very basic question: how does he think a Lab-Lib deal could produce a viable government now, when the numbers didn’t work back in May 2010?  One wonders: if Ed Balls really can’t add up simple figures in the low hundreds, how on earth did he ever think he could run a national economy?

And then there is the call for Nick Clegg to go. This has been a Labour fantasy ever since 2010. Nick Clegg stands for that putative betrayal of joining the Conservatives when, from a Labour point of view,  the LibDems were ever only  ‘Labour Light’; a party which could only be tolerated as waiting in the wings  for two purposes: a) a convenient place for Labour voters to move their vote for a while in an emergency, i.e. living in a Tory area or not approving of the Labour leadership; and b) as convenient potential coalition partner in the case of a hung parliament. Labour has never managed to forgive Nick Clegg and the LibDems for not quite sharing that interpetation of the third party’s role in British politics.

And then, Nick Clegg had the temerity to force Gordon Brown to go. It wasn’t to be expected that he’d get any thanks for doing what Labour should have done themselves years earlier. But in his desire to pay back Nick Clegg, Ed Balls displays the lack of yet another quality one would rather like to see in a chancellor, namely an understanding of how negotiations work.

I’d have thought that somebody who desperately wants another party to take a risky, generous step which is more to the benefit of his own side would understand that negotiations would have to start with a pretty generous offer, not a demand to take big risks for no obvious rewards. In 2010, Labour wanted a favour from the LibDems, and since the LibDems had an alternative and frankly better offer, Nick Clegg could make demands. Labour’s current ‘negotiation position’ simply does not compare: Ed Balls wants something very badly, and has nothing attractive to give in return, not even a credible plan to fix the economy or to avoid awful cuts.

One just has to listen to the  heart-warming tones of a  man known for stabbing half his own party’s backs while they were in government.

 But I have known many of the senior Lib Dems well enough over 20 years…they know this isn’t working, the economic consequences of carrying on with this are very dangerous for Britain.

Before or after the next election, if the parliamentary arithmetic throws up the need for a coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems, I would go into that with enthusiasm…I could serve in a Cabinet with Chris Huhne or Vince Cable tomorrow.

Yes, but what about most of the other LibDems, Ed? With each MP you can’t work with, the arithmetic is getting more impossible. And one thing one really has to learn before negotiating is to accept that the other side does not necessarily share one’s worldview.

They have got to decide whether they want to serve in a Lab-Lib Cabinet which is trying to protect the NHS, keep us a robust defender of the national interest in the EU and get unemployment down, or whether they are willing to go along with what they now find themselves bound into.

Ed Balls would perhaps be surprised to hear that LibDems believe that they are currently as well placed to protect the NHS and to do all in their power to keep the UK involved with the EU as a party with 57 MPs could ever hope to be. That, surely, was one of the prime motivations for going into that coalition with the Tories in the first place: to prevent a Tory government and to do as much possible to soften the blow of the economic crisis.

And as Ed Balls continues, you almost hear those violins in the background… “I’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse”.

As they sit there over Christmas and reflect what they are in politics for, there is a better way than this.

Well, it sounds like a highly refusable offer, and it smacks of desperation, too. The end of the article gives away the prime motivation…

If the final job of my political career is Chancellor of the Exchequer, I would have had a pretty good career. My one regret would be if I don’t become Chancellor.

He must know that the clock is ticking and that the odds are getting longer. Paradoxically, he has to try to keep Ed Miliband in place, since the alternatives – David Miliband and Yvette Cooper - surely would or could, for very different reasons, not offer him the same post. So what options does Ed Balls have left? As the realisation dawns that Ed Miliband is unlikely ever to lead a government, the Shadow Chancellor might as well turn to the fairy tales and hope that the LibDems simply don’t notice the menacing growl in that oh-so-loving Christmas message.

Posted in Coalition, Current events, Political Parties, Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Atheism vs. Religion: can’t we have a sensible debate?

I am posting this as a reaction to a few debates I got involved in recently, including one earlier today. My thoughts on these issues are still rather at a very early stage of development (and I daresay it shows), but it’s an issue that’s been bugging me for a while – that, and I promised Zadok Day that I’d turn my arguments into a blog post.   [Edited to add: Zadok Day has now also written a blog post on this topic]

I keep coming across atheists who not only argue vigorously against religion but also like to maintain that religion is responsible for most evils in this world, has had no positive consequences whatsoever and is generally hateful and bigoted. Moreover, such people seem to be awfully easily offended by anything that even faintly reminds them of the presence of religion anywhere in public life, and some would clearly like to see nothing less than removing religion from the planet altogether.

For me the most staggering and infuriating thing about such discussions is the single-minded, dogmatic zeal with which such opinions are being presented. I can only call it a fundamentalist mindset, and it worries me deeply, since I generally consider fundamentalism as destructive.

To put this argument in context, let me point out that I am a practicing Roman Catholic, but I’d also describe myself as very liberal about religion, society and life in general. As so many people who consider themselves religious, I am very happy not to fit a number of the usual stereotypes.

When I come across yet another one of those atheism-against-religion discussions, I don’t feel victimised, but I am worried about increasing polarisation, and frankly, the dumbing down of the discussion: I blame it on the Christian Right in the US and on people like Dawkins and Hitchens trying to reply in kind. If you have a discussion where both sides claim that they are the persecuted minority whose grievances ought to get priority you are in trouble – yet that’s exactly where we are rapidly going in this debate. In the end, I can’t stand fundamentalists on both sides, and I get on with people of various religious views and none as long as they are willing to listen to other people’s arguments and don’t use their (non-)religious views to try to ‘prove’ their own self-importance and superiority to other people – or as long as they are not aggressive and condescending in trying to convert others to ‘their side’.

When it comes to the most zealous atheists I am often shocked about the apparently wilful ignorance and very shallow, stereotypical views of religion which often underlie their arguments: unfortunately, Richard Dawkins is a prime offender in this respect. In essence, the argument is often along the lines of: ‘if you are a Christian you obviously conform to stereotypes X, Y and Z’; and usually these stereotypes are not at all compatible with how religion (at least Christianity) is practiced in most parts of western Europe. For example, if you base your ideas of Christians on Richard Dawkins’s pronouncements, you might be surprised to hear that most Christians in western Europe have absolutely no problem with thinking that the natural world has taken its shape via the fascinating mechanism of evolution. What we get is people like Dawkins arguing against the kind of Christianity that is practiced in some parts of the USA – without much  (or any) acknowledgement of the sheer range of beliefs and practices that exist besides this rather extreme (if vocal) variant.

This statement (spotted during discussion today) seems typical for the kind of attitude I am describing:

It is the notion that those who follow religions on cherry pick from religious texts that annoy me. “Oh the bible teaches me to forgive”. So how about the bit about God promoting genocide? “Well, umm..we all inerpret it differently”. That was a real conversation with a real christian that I had.

Just how unacceptable and annoying is it that somebody who claims to be a Christian isn’t willing to fit completely with the ‘evil bigot’ stereotype? A Christian willing to think about interpreting the Bible and to prioritise tolerance! Get the thought police!

The problem is that religion is a complex historical and sociological phenomenon. This seems to be complete anathema to some people who participate in such debates. Here is a typical statement:

It is impossible for an atheist to believe that morality comes from anywhere other than humanity itself. Morality belongs to human beings not religions not gods. If you say that I hold Christian values you are imposing your religious beliefs on to me. I reject Christianity’s claim on them!

While there might not be any scientific evidence for the existence of a god, it’s hard to claim that there is no evidence for the existence and impact of religion as an anthropological phenomenon. In fact, I would say that the claim made above leaves some pretty basic logic behind. If you don’t believe in God then surely you must assume that the phenomenon of religion is clearly a human invention, so what is the problem? For somebody who considers history in a rational manner, any Christian values obviously come ‘from humanity itself’, and it’s hard to deny that a part of our society’s values were, during the last nineteen centuries or so, shaped by this particular philosophical system. The statement above seems to suggest that the person who made it  simply refuses to accept that any form of culture, history and society they disapprove of may have influenced whatever values they hold. When suspicion of religion goes so far that it leads to a complete rejection of some pretty basic facts of cultural history as it stands, that strikes me as the kind of fundamentalist mindset which prioritises ideology (or belief) over rational thinking. Of course, this kind of statement tends to come from people who pride themselves in basing all their values and ideas on pure rationalism. In my book, overlooking the facts of history because it doesn’t fit one’s wishful thinking isn’t exactly rational.

I am even more worried about arguments along the lines of ‘religion is generally evil and has only ever brought bad consequences’. Making arguments like this about complex sociological phenomena is simply beneath intelligent discourse – how is that better than saying all ‘gay people are evil’, or various other things some religious people get spectacularly and dogmatically wrong? And the reaction to any counter-argument is often just as the worst of religious fundamentalists would react, namely along the lines of ‘I am right and you are wrong, because my ideology is by definition rational and superior, so there’.

It’s a mindset that exists in relation to any kind of big idea (and ‘there is no god’ is a big idea)- and it’s really worrying if at a time when religious fundamentalism is increasingly recognised as something we need to fight, it’s the atheists, of all people, who inject more of that kind of rigid mindset into the discussion. You’d have hoped that those who criticise the excesses of fundamentalist beliefs would try their best not to operate in the exact same way in order to push their own ideas – but apparently it doesn’t work like that. Fire, apparently, is to be fought with more fire.  Thanks for nothing, Richard Dawkins.

Of course, this kind of argument is refuted time and time again with a kind of arrogance which simply refuses to accept that atheists might be susceptible to this kind of problem - here is another handy snippet spotted just a few hours ago:

We don’t want to be told that our rejection of religion is itself a quasi-religious belief. If people stopped doing that, stopped trying to impose religion on us, there would be far less to object to.

Well, how else should one describe it? In a debate where argument stands against argument, atheism represents an alternative belief system just as all the other viewpoints represented by other participants. A ‘belief system’ does not have to involve gods, and can be based on rational or irrational arguments. In the end, what matters is how the proponents of that way of thinking present their arguments. Do they shove them down the throats of other people? Do they use their beliefs to make themselves feel superior? Do they let their ideas trump rational argument or evidence? Do they actually use proper arguments? People who sum up religion with statements like ‘I laugh at people who believe in fairies’ are no less obnoxious than people who say ‘you’ll go to hell because you don’t believe in God in exactly the way I tell you to’.

I have nothing against atheism, which strikes me as a honest way of reacting to a rational world, but I am worried about a debate which increasingly sees entrenched positions and an arrogant unwillingness to investigate contexts, nuances and history. My big worry is that if Richard Dawkins and his followers continue in this vein they will produce the kind of irrational entrenched opposition they are currently merely postulating for places like the UK and Europe. Perhaps they really crave a world polarised between atheists and religious people, a world where we get black and white instead of many shades of grey – but I certainly don’t want to see that happening. We need less polarisation, not more.

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