Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Round Two: Fight!

Today held two incredibly aggravating encounters. The first was in the form of David Round's column of bigotry and nonsense, but before I get to a critique of this week's article, I'll share with you the second encounter.

I went to my local video store to check out a DVD I'd spotted previously but hadn't had the chance to rent out. The title, "Enemies of Reason", presented by Richard Dawkins, is an exposé of the sham industries of astrology, homeopathy, psychics, spiritualist churches, etc. Luckily, it was available, so I plucked it from the shelf. As I presented my choice of DVD at the counter, and before I could say anything, I was halted in my tracks as the woman who was serving blurted out in a suspiciously defensive manner: "You know, this is very one-sided - I saw it and it has been edited to suit his side of the story". I was stunned; mouth literally agape. She had preemptively answered a question that I had no intent to ask her. I was already in a thoroughly angry state after having been outraged by David Round's newspaper article just prior, and was in no mood to deal with this. Barely containing myself, I left seething. I don't care for video store employees who publically pass judgement on my choice of viewing. Edited to suit Dawkins' point of view, eh? Well, since I'm perfectly capable of independent thought, I think I'll decide for myself once I've seen the programme.

Once again, someone with a religious or spiritual belief foists their view upon an unsuspecting victim where it wasn't asked for and was totally inappropriate. Once again, I am supposed to respect this person's beliefs as if all beliefs were equally valid, when they have no intention of reciprocating the act.

Speaking of which...

"You can't live without belief"
The Press, August 20th, 2008

"Wild Thing! You make my heart sing! You make eeeeeeeeeeeverything!"
Then, having caught the young lady's attention, the singer continues—hesitantly, sensitively—"Wild thing I, - think I love you."
You certainly have her attention now.
"But I've gotta know for sure!"
Well, that is not unreasonable.
"So c'mon, hold me tight."
Like this?
"I love you."

Was it really that simple? We can hardly believe our ears as we listen to the brisk simple steps of Wild Thing's courtship. But the old lines definitely worked. I might love you—hold me tight—no, really really tight—righto, now I do love you. Right now, anyway.

It's an old story, and a very true one.

No similar knowledge of human nature, however emerges from John Lennon's innocent and beautiful song 'Imagine'. I used to think the words were grandly noble, if impossible of realisation, but now I just think they are stupid. "Imagine there's no countries", he sings, "nothing to kill or die for—and no religion too—imagine no possessions—no need for grief or hunger in a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people living for today."

There are some internal contradictions in this blissful vision of earthly paradise. It would be neither wonderful nor possible, and attempts to create it disastrous . If people live for today, without thought of rewards and punishments in a future life, they would probably be more selfish, and more attached to material possessions as the only things which gave life meaning. They would be unlikely to share.

Only belief, which Lennon has forbidden, will get people to behave well. Belief moves all our actions. Belief can promote love as well as hatred. Love does not come naturally. If there is no belief—"nothing to kill or die for"—not even our own homeland, families and way of life—not even, as Macaulay says, "the ashes of our fathers and the temples of our gods"—then life is a very sorry business.

Everything is valueless. We would go mad.

Besides, we cannot avoid belief. We are build for it, and nature abhors a vacuum. Our choice is not between belief and disbelief, but only between wise and stupid beliefs. G. K. Chesterton said that the sad thing about atheists was not that they believed nothing, but that they would believe anything.

Every now and then someone shakes his head sadly at the betrayed bright promise and disappointed hopes of the 1960's. Here was a generation privileged as no other had ever been—educated, loved, healthy, free from the fears of war, hunger and want, ready and able to solve the world's problems. What happened?

Part of the answer was their confusion of the real and the ideal—their belief that people were, if not perfect, at least perfectible. Optimism is an endearing folly. But it can be a stupidity with dire consequences. If we are all naturally good, then effort is unnecessary. Let It Be. If only a little prod could get us to do without possessions and bring universal happiness, then can a prod be wrong? 'Imagine' is Pol Pot's spiritual theme tune.

There was an irritating series of liberating, uplifting thoughts entitled Love is in the 60's. Two plump happy twee little figures, male and female, shared love and happiness each week. Their most famous announcement was that "love means never having to say you're sorry".

That is fatuous. If you love someone, you are sorry when you hurt them. We imperfect human beings hurt the ones we love most dearly all the time. If we did not bother saying sorry, that would indicate that we just don't care.

New age apostles tell us of the destructive effects of guilt, and how much better off we would be if we could shake ourselves free of guilt altogether. This too if nonsense. Guilt is simply the knowledge that we've done wrong, and that we should do better.It is inseparable from our knowledge of good and evil. It is the voice of our conscience. It can be corrosive if carried to excess, but the usual problem is too little guilt rather than too much. A world without guilt would be a world of monstrous, cruel and ruthless egotists.

Ideas can be dangerous. Most dangerous of all, though, is a belief that we are still living innocently in Eden. We desire to return to Eden, but we are not there now. We have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We have fallen from grace; but in that fall, and our desire to return, is our humanity.

Round has the nerve to suggest that Chesterton is correct in claiming that atheists are stupid and gullible people who will "believe anything". Sure, I mean virgin conception and birth, miracles, resurrection, heaven and hell... No wait - aren't those Christian beliefs? But it's us atheists who are apparently the gullible ones. Yeah, right.

He also has the nerve to take a swipe at the "internal contradictions" of a John Lennon song. Ever read the Bible, Dave? If you were looking for internal contradictions, there's no place like home.

Round glibly wonders what happend to the spirit of the 60's. Well, Dave, it was destroyed by conservatives, capitalists, christian moralists, republicans... In short, people like you. In Round's view, it was apparently wrong of people in the 60's to actually try to build a better world, where we tolerate each other and love each other for what we are. Bizarrely, Round later laments that we have been unable to reach an earthly Eden. Having missed the swinging 60's by 20 years, I can't claim to have any first-hand knowledge, but from what I've seen and observed, the 60's were if nothing else a pretty good attempt at creating one.

Divisionism is the principal theme here. On one hand, Round rues selfishness, alienation and materialism, but on the other, he wants us all to fight for our own race, families, countries, and beliefs against the evidently evil "other".

Familiar examples of actions guided by beliefs (faith-based initiatives?) could be, say, the Crusades (spreading the 'Good News'), or the Inquisitions ("confess or die"), or the Salem witch trials ("that woman acts/looks different - she must be a witch: burn her"), or any of the other witch trials, or the near-continuous religious civil wars that divided Britain and Europe ("keep that Papist/Orange monarch off the throne!") for centuries.

The weasly, law-trained side of Round is in fine form, too. He manipulates his language to make patently unflattering implications about atheists.

Things I have consistently noted with Round, as with other bigots I have encountered, are the use of selective interpretation, negative association and connotation, redefinition of terms, changing the sense of terms, context-shifting, stereotyping, misrepresentation, fallacious arguments, deliberate confusion, ambiguity. In other words, nothing short of logical fraud.

Round believes that if we are not prepared to engage in perpetual warfare to maintain tradition and past beliefs, then "Everything is valueless" and therefore "We would go mad". In my view as an atheist, of course there is no inherent meaning in anything. Meaning is a subjective interpretation placed on an object, event or process by human observers. There may be agreement between observers, but this is irrelevant. Critically unexamined belief is simply assertion, and carries negligible value. Fundamentally there is no meaning. The difference between atheists and believers is that atheists have the fortitude of mind and the sense to accept this; believers do not, and must prop themselves up with notions of an external figure or force which acts as a parent substitute. The fear of losing this bond—its pre-provided 'meaning'—and "going mad", prevents believers from breaking free of their ridiculous superstitions, even in the face of evidence that their beliefs are not consistent with reality.


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