One Cup or Two?

You can keep your Kants and Heideggers, your Platos and Spinozas, the whole high-falutin’ philosophical crew. When it comes to life’s mundane mysteries, they’re no use at all. As well as being permanently pissed, according to the Pythons.

I give you instead an everyday philosopher, John Shuttleworth, Sheffield singer/songwriter and pigeon-fancier. Armed only with a Hammond organ, he sings of the simple conundrums we all face. Here is the one cup or two dilemma. Tea, of course.

We’ve all been there.

John Shuttleworth is actually a character of Graham Fellows, who also gives voice to John’s wife, Mary, and his next door neighbour and sole agent, Ken Worthington. Fellows started as Jilted John, a teenager dumped by his girlfriend. He sent a demo tape to the legendary John Peel Show, and ended up on Top of the Pops.

But it’s the later incarnation of John Shuttleworth who’s lasted. To close this post, lest I witter on forever, is the saga of John’s attempt to enter a song in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Plato’s Twilight Zone

I’m not sure what to make of this animated version of Plato’s Cave, which I nicked off Orwellwasright. Please visit his blog so I can salve my conscience. The narrator has the distinct tones of Rod Serling introducing an episode of The Twilight Zone, adding a surreal twist to what is in essence a fairly creepy science fiction scenario. Who are these unknown aliens keeping mankind chained in delusion?

For the answer I must leave you in the capable hands of David Icke and Our Lizard Overlords. In the meantime, enjoy the allegory of your enslavement.

Uses and Abuses of Secular Saints

I was recently invited to post on the Positivists’ Blog, and this is a copy of my first post. One of the advantages is that I have to get it right first time, rather than endlessly fiddling with what I’ve written, as I do here. Please visit them if you’re interested in subject.

Today’s date in the Positivist calendar, devised by Auguste Comte in 1849, is Caesar 24, 224. The fifth month of this 13 month calendar is devoted to Military Civilization, if that’s not an oxymoron, and is therefore stuffed with 28 characters from military history. Each month has a particular theme – (1) The Initial Theocracy, (2) Ancient Poetry, (3) Ancient Philosophy, (4) Ancient Science, (6) Catholicism, (7) Feudal Civilization, (8) Modern Epic Poetry, (9) Modern Industry, (10) Modern Drama, (11) Modern Philosophy, (12) Modern Policy, (13) Modern Science – and each has 28 exemplars of that theme, one for each day. The title of the month represents someone who Comte considered to be its quintessential exponent. Hence Caesar for Military Civilization. You can see the whole calendar here.

As a calendar it’s brilliant – 13 months of 4 weeks with 7 days each, and an extra day (2 in a leap year). On that basis, I lauded it to skies in this blog post, with the caveat that Comte missed out on an obvious tweak to make make it well-nigh perfect – situating the extra day on the winter solstice, thus synchronizing his calendar with the seasons. Instead he started on January 1st, 1789, of the Gregorian calendar.

But I do have a problem with the “secular saints” populating his calendar. To be fair, Comte had larger fish to fry than just a rational calendar – nothing less than the establishment of a Religion of Humanity, founded on moral altruism and scientific (positivist) principles. Its pillars were altruism, order, and progress. While never realized, the idea is still influential. Alain de Botton seems to heading in that direction, with his proposal for a temple for atheists.

So it’s not surprising that Comte should have co-opted the idea of Catholic Saints Days – the French have also fully populated their calendar with them. It’s somewhat akin to the perception of cars – in the early days they were “horseless carriages” because that was the template by which they could be identified and still fit in with traditional ideas of vehicular locomotion. Only when they became agents of social change in their own right did they acquire a specific and different identity.

The difference between sacred and secular saints is worth thinking about. I propose that the reason we look up to both saints and secular figures of authority is quite similar, and it has three aspects. The first is that they represent a communion with mysteries beyond our understanding. It’s fairly obvious in religious saints, who are seen to be blessed with a particularly close relationship with God. Secular saints commune with the mysteries of worldly power and knowledge, which are usually beyond our ability to access. We can only be recipients – willing or otherwise – of the effects of that power and knowledge. The phrase, “ivory tower,” is a telling comment on the ambivalent reception such knowledge evokes.

Coincidentally, I just finished watching series 2 of the BBC documentary, Beautiful Minds, featuring the careers and discoveries of Richard DawkinsAndre Geim, and Jenny Clack. There is something unmistakably hagiographic in the tone, much as it celebrates triumphs of the intellect.

Saints also hold out the tantalizing possibility of a career path to those dizzying heights. This is the second aspect. Think of the hagiographies as instruction manuals for Christians aspiring to sainthood, and the huge numbers of ordinary men and women in medieval times who willingly surrendered themselves to a lifetime of monastic discipline. Secular societies, on the other hand, offer an explicit and ordered way of acquiring knowledge and power. It’s still a difficult path, typically involving years of study and practice, but the way is usually open.

Finally, to put it bluntly, the saints deliver the goods. Religious saints do this by the miracles they’re credited with. It doesn’t matter that there’s no objective evidence linking cause (a bone in a shrine, perhaps) with effect – what seems like a miraculous recovery from illness. As long as cause and effect are linked by the faith of the believer, a miracle is perceived and the saint gets the brownie points.

Secular saints, scientists in particular, also deliver “miracles.” They’re on a grander scale – wiping out smallpox, for example  – and can fundamentally change the material basis and social relations of a society. But they are double-edged, not necessarily good for everyone affected by them, and often resented by people who see a wider and deeper understanding of the world as a threat. Even so, science drives technology, which creates cool, new consumer products and makes corporations very happy.

Because of the contradictions inherent in secular sainthood, their adoption by Comte is entirely inappropriate for a modern society. He hasn’t yet reached the point at which his “car” has its own identity – it’s still a hybrid “horseless carriage.” More than that, secular saints fly in the face of logic and scientific method, suggesting that he regards argument from authority as valid, or that the search for knowledge suddenly came to a screeching halt in 1849. Science is an endlessly self-correcting mechanism, as new “beautiful minds” overturn and build upon the achievements of the past. You have to wonder if he envisaged defenestrating any of the occupants from their calendrical niches in “Modern Science” if they were proven wrong.

As an atheist, I’m suspicious of any attempt to clothe positivism in the hand-me-down regalia of religion, even more so by proposing a “Religion of Humanity.” If it’s good enough to be human, and if humans can make moral judgments based on our common humanity, then why do we need to invoke the trappings of religion?

The Interesting Thoughts of Edward Monkton

Edward Monkton is actually one of the personae of Giles Andreae. The other one is Purple Ronnie. But let’s stick with Edward Monkton for now, or things will get too confusing. The Interesting Thoughts of Edward Monkton is a website devoted to Monkton’s quirky (or eminently sane) view of the world.

Monkton is a poet and artist who has taken his skills in an entirely new direction – the world of greeting cards. Not unlike William McGonagall, who arguably became the world’s first performance poet. The resemblance ends there, because Monkton is very good at what he does. To have single-handedly rescued these poor, abused bits of cardboard from the sentimentalists, sadists, appalling poets and the terminally unfunny is an accomplishment approaching, if not holding hands with, genius.

These deceptively simple, absurdly positive and cheerful thoughts hit you like a tab of acid. You trust this man when he says:

These drawings would like to be your FRIENDS. Use them for INSPIRATION. There is no corner of LIFE into which they cannot shine the bright torch of INSIGHT.

Trust these drawings. They will not LET YOU DOWN.

Such is the REDEMPTIVE and INSPIRATIONAL power of these THOUGHTS that I am even prepared to forgive Giles Andreae for being best friends with David Cameron at Eton. It’s a mucky job but someone had to do it.

A Temple to Atheism? Dear God, No!

I have been driven to prayer by faux philosopher, Alain de Botton’s idea for a “temple to atheism” in the City of London, as outlined in this Guardian article. Why does he want this temple? Because he thinks Richard DawkinsChristopher Hitchens, and other militant atheists are a “destructive force.” In other words, he wants a kinder, gentler atheism that stresses positivity and goodness, with an awe-inspiring building to evoke the correct response.

I think most people seek positivity and goodness in their own way, atheists and believers alike. Including Dawkins, who recognizes that the lies and institutionalised power of religion are the enemies of reason, and any happiness derived from religion depends on studiously ignoring the reality of how the world works. I don’t think Dawkins et al are being overly zealous in combatting what would be insane ideas if someone had only invented them just a moment ago. With hundreds or thousands of years of tradition behind them, they have accumulated an entirely undeserved authority. We think Scientology is utter bollocks, a cynical, money-making scam, but time will turn it into an established Truth.

That said, I part company with Dawkins in not thinking that religion will eventually succumb to the forces of reason, or that believers are influenced by everything in their holy books. Institutional religion has such deep roots in human societies that digging them all up is impossible – they’re like weeds, springing up where fear and longing meet a supernatural idea.

What makes this truth palatable is that we’re only human, and only give practical credence and expression to those parts of a holy book or political dogma that accord with the manners and mores of the society we inhabit. Obviously, it’s a chicken and egg situation, but societies do evolve in response to real events and real knowledge. Bad news if you live in a theocracy, because real knowledge is in short supply. For citizens of liberal democracies, religious institutions are generally more benign, their practiced doctrines more or less compatible with civilization. Even these societies have their fundamentalists, but they’re more likely to be marginalized. A glaring exception is the US, which has a thriving Christian Taliban, currently choosing the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

So I try to respond to people as fellow human beings, and refrain from criticizing their religious beliefs unless they bring them up, or behave in a completely unacceptable way. People are interesting and generally do the decent thing – I’d rather talk and try to understand where they’re coming from. I reserve my criticism and anger for the institutional coercion of secular societies and special pleading. Nobody should be exempt from secular laws.

This is the “temple” proposed by de Botton:

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

Brilliant. Sounds like a really imaginative architectural project. I’d be proud to back something like that if only he didn’t tack the silly label of “temple to atheism” on it. Ask yourself, what does this project have to do with belief or non-belief? It’s about science, evolution, the whole glorious panoply of emerging life on earth. Isn’t that enough? And we already have such buildings. They’re called the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum among many others. The only way de Botton’s project could be a temple to atheism is if he installed an altar at its centre, housing an illuminated copy of The God Delusion. Even then, it would be pure idolatry.

The fact is that being religious does not preclude either respect for the scientific method or the well-established theories derived from it. Catholics, for example, accept the Big Bang and evolution, although they insist on a God somewhere in the process. By and large, only fundamentalists reject the basic tenets of science. By calling this a temple to atheism, he is in fact shutting the door in the faces of those believers who respect science. As atheists, we can’t afford to do this. We need all the help we can get to establish and maintain secular societies where both belief and non-belief are protected and tolerated.

As it happens, de Botton has already run into trouble with his daft label.

Discussions with City authorities about a possible site stalled because “they can’t be seen to be connected to anything to do with atheism”, the project’s architect, Tom Greenall, said.

Well, d’uh!

Please read the Guardian article, which has all the meat on its bones. I hope there’s a cif article on the subject soon, so we can all pile in with comments.