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nationalism, memes and the ANZAC legend

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Canto: Okay, I get livid when I hear the unquestioning and unquestioned pap spoken about the Anzacs, year in year out, and when I hear primary teachers talking about their passion for Anzac Day, and teaching it to impressionable young children. Not sure how they will teach it, but when such remarks are followed by a middle-aged woman knitting poppy rosettes and saying ‘after all, if it wasn’t for them [the Anzacs] we would’t be here’, I’m filled with rage and despair about the distortions of history to suit some kind of nationalist pride and sentimentality.

Jacinta: Yes, that sort of thing leads to innocent, impressionable young children parroting the meme ‘they died so we could be free’.

Canto: Or in this case the even more absurd ‘they died so that we could exist’…

Jacinta: On the other hand, to be fair, many young people go off to Anzac Cove to commemorate their actual grand-fathers or great-great uncles who died there, and they’re captivated by their story of sacrifice.

Canto: Yes, and this memory should be kept, but for the right, evidence-based reasons. What did these young men sacrifice themselves for, really?

Jacinta: Well as we know, the reasons for the so-called Great War were mightily complex, but we can fairly quickly rule out that there was ever a threat to Australia’s freedom or existence. Of course it’s hard to imagine what would have happened if the Central Powers had won.

Canto: Well it’s hard to imagine them actually winning, but say this led to an invasion of Britain. Impossible to imagine this lasting for long, what with the growing involvement of the US. Of course the US wasn’t then the power it later became, but there’s little chance it would’ve fallen to the Central Powers, and it was growing stronger all the time, and as the natural ally of its fellow English-speaking nation, it would’ve made life tough for Britain’s occupiers, until some solution or treaty came about. Whatever happened, Australia would surely not have been in the frame.

Jacinta: Britain’s empire might’ve been weakened more quickly than it eventually was due to the anti-colonisation movement of the twentieth century. And of course another consequence of the Central Powers’ victory, however partial, might’ve been the failure or non-existence of Nazism…

Canto: Yes, though with the popularity of eugenics in the early twentieth century, master-race ideology, so endemic in Japan, would still have killed off masses of people.

Jacinta: In any case your point still holds true. Those young men sacrificed themselves for the British Empire, in its battle against a wannabe Germanic Empire, in a war largely confined to Europe.

Canto: But really in order to understand the mind-set of the young men who went to war in those days, you have to look more to social history. There was a naive enthusiasm for the adventure of war in those days, with western nations being generally much more patriarchal, with all the negative qualities entailed in that woeful term.

Jacinta: True, and that War That Didn’t End All Wars should, I agree, be best remembered as marking the beginning of the end of that war-delighting patriarchy that, in that instance, saw the needless death of millions, soldiers who went happily adventuring without fully realising that the massive industrialisation of the previous decades would make mincemeat out of so many of them. I’ve just been reading and watching videos of that war so as not to make an idiot of myself, and what I’ve found is a bunch of nations or soi-disant empires battling to maintain or regain or establish their machismo credentials in the year 1914. With no side willing to give quarter, and no independent mechanisms of negotiation, it all quickly degenerated into an abysmal conflict that no particular party could be blamed for causing or not preventing.

Canto: And some six million men were just waiting to get stuck in, an unprecedented situation. And what happened next was also unprecedented, a level of carnage never seen before in human history. The Battle of the Frontiers, as it was called, saw well over half a million casualties, within a month of the outbreak.

Jacinta: And so it went, carnage upon carnage, with the Gallipoli campaign – unbearable heat, flies, sickness and failure – being just one disaster among many. Of course it infamously settled into a war of attrition for some time, and how jolly it must’ve been for the allies to hear that they would inevitably be the victors, since the Central Powers would run out of cannon fodder first. It was all in the maths. War is fucked, and that particular war is massively illustrative of that fact. So stop, all teachers who want to tell the story of the heroic Anzacs to our impressionable children. I’m not saying they weren’t brave and heroic. I’m not saying they didn’t do their best under the most horrendous conditions. I’m certainly not saying their experience in fighting for the mother country was without value. They lived their time, within the confines and ideology of their time, as we all do. They played their part fully, in terms of what was expected of them in that time. They did their best. And it’s probably fair to say their commanders, and those above them, the major war strategists, also did their best, which no doubt in some cases was better than others. Even so, with all that, we have to be honest and clear-sighted and say they didn’t die, or have their lives forever damaged, so that we could be free. That’s sheer nonsense. They died so that a British Empire could maintain its ascendency, for a time, over a German one.

Canto: Or in the case of the French and the Russians, who suffered humungous casualties, they died due to the treaty entanglements of the time, and their overlords’ obvious concerns about the rise of Germany.

Jacinta: So all this pathos about the Anzacs really needs to be tweaked, just a wee bit. I don’t want to say they died in vain, but the fact is, they were there, at Gallipoli, in those rotten stinking conditions, in harm’s way, because of decisions made above their heads. That wasn’t their fault, and I’m reluctant, too, to blame the commanders, who also lived true to their times. Perhaps we should just be commemorating the fact that we no longer live in those macho, authoritarian times, and that we need to always find a better way forward than warfare.

Written by stewart henderson

August 21, 2017 at 10:56 pm

three problems with Islamic society, moderate or otherwise

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As a teacher of English to foreign students, I have a lot of dealing with, mostly male, Moslems. I generally get on very well with them. Religion doesn’t come up as an issue, any more than with my Chinese or Vietnamese students. I’m teaching them English, after all. However, it’s my experience of the views of a fellow teacher, very much a moderate Moslem, that has caused me to write this piece, because those views seem to echo much that I’ve read about online and elsewhere.

  1. Homosexuality

It’s well known that in such profoundly Islamic countries as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, there’s zero acceptance of homosexuality, to the point of claiming it doesn’t exist in those countries. Its ‘non-existence’ may be due to that fact that its practice incurs the death penalty (in Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Iran and Sudan), though such penalties are rarely carried out – except, apparently, in Iran. Of course, killing people in large numbers would indicate that there’s a homosexual ‘problem’. In other Moslem countries, homosexuals are merely imprisoned for varying periods. And lest we feel overly superior, take note of this comment from a very informative article in The Guardian:

Statistics are scarce [on arrests and prosecutions in Moslem countries] but the number of arrests is undoubtedly lower than it was during the British wave of homophobia in the 1950s. In England in 1952, there were 670 prosecutions for sodomy, 3,087 for attempted sodomy or indecent assault, and 1,686 for gross indecency.

This indicates how far we’ve travelled in a short time, and it also gives hope that other nations and regions might be swiftly transformed, but there’s frankly little sign of it as yet. Of course the real problem here is patriarchy, which is always and everywhere coupled with homophobia. It’s a patriarchy reinforced by religion, but I think if we in the west were to try to put pressure on these countries and cultures, I think we’d succeed more through criticising their patriarchal attitudes than their religion.

Having said this, it just might be that acceptance of homosexuality among liberal Moslems outside of their own countries (and maybe even inside them) is greater than it seems to be from the vibes I’ve gotten from the quite large numbers of Moslems I’ve met over the years. A poll taken by the Pew Research Centre has surprised me with its finding that 45% of U.S. Moslems accept homosexuality (in 2014, up from 38% in 2007), more than is the case among some Christian denominations, and the movement towards acceptance aligns with a trend throughout the U.S. (and no doubt all other western nations), among religious and non-religious alike. With greater global communication and interaction, the diminution of poverty and the growth of education, things will hopefully improve in non-western countries as well.

2. Antisemitism and the Holocaust

I’ve been shocked to hear, more than once, Moslems blithely denying, or claiming as exaggerated, the events of the Holocaust. This appears to be a recent phenomenon, which obviously bolsters the arguments of many Middle Eastern nations against the Jewish presence in their region. However, it should be pointed out that Egypt’s President Nasser, a hero of the Moslem world, told a German newspaper in 1964 that ‘no person, not even the most simple one, takes seriously the lie of the six million Jews that were murdered [in the Holocaust]’. More recently Iran has become a particular hotspot of denialism, with former President Ahmadinejad making a number of fiery speeches on the issue. Most moderate Islamic organisations, here and elsewhere in the west, present a standard line that the Shoah was exactly as massive and horrific as we know it to be, but questions are often raised about the sincerity of such positions, given the rapid rise of denialism in the Arab world. Arguably, though, this denialism isn’t part of standard anti-semitism. Responding to his own research into holocaust denialism among Israeli Arabs (up from 28% in 2006 to 40% in 2008), Sammy Smooha of Haifa University wrote this:

In Arab eyes disbelief in the very happening of the Shoah is not hate of Jews (embedded in the denial of the Shoah in the West) but rather a form of protest. Arabs not believing in the event of Shoah intend to express strong objection to the portrayal of the Jews as the ultimate victim and to the underrating of the Palestinians as a victim. They deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state that the Shoah gives legitimacy to. Arab disbelief in the Shoah is a component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unlike the ideological and anti-Semitic denial of the Holocaust and the desire to escape guilt in the West.

This is an opinion, of course, and may be seen as hair-splitting with respect to anti-semitism, but it’s clear that these counterfactual views aren’t helpful as we try to foster multiculturalism in countries like Australia.They need to be challenged at every turn.

Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns holds a rally in front of the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats against Isreal and denial of the Holocaust, Monday, March 13, 2006 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

3. Evolution

While the rejection, and general ignorance, of the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution – more specifically, natural selection from random variation – may not be the most disturbing feature of Islamic society, it’s the one that most nearly concerns me as a person keen to promote science and critical thinking. I don’t teach evolution of course, but I often touch on scientific topics in teaching academic English. A number of times I’ve had incredulous comments on our relationship to apes (it’s more than a relationship!), and as far as I can recall, they’ve all been from Moslem students. I’ve also come across various websites over the years, by Moslem writers – often academics – from Turkey, India and Pakistan whose anti-evolution and anti-Darwin views degenerate quickly into fanatical hate-filled screeds.

I won’t go into the evidence for natural selection here, or an explanation of the theory, which is essential to all of modern biology. It’s actually quite complex when laid out in detail, and it’s not particularly surprising that even many non-religious people have trouble understanding it. What bothers me is that so many Moslems I’ve encountered don’t make any real attempt to understand the theory, but reject it wholesale for reasons not particularly related to the science. They’ve used the word ‘we’ in rejecting it, so that it’s impossible to even get to first base with them. This raises the question of the teaching of evolution in Moslem schools (and of course, not just Moslem schools), and whether and how much this is monitored. One may argue that non-belief in evolution, like belief in a flat earth or other specious ways of thinking, isn’t so harmful given a general scientific illiteracy which hasn’t stopped those in the know from making great advances, but it’s a problem when being brought up in a particular culture stifles access to knowledge, and even promotes a vehement rejection of that knowledge. We need to get our young people on the right page not in terms of a national curriculum but an evidence-based curriculum for all. Evidence has no national boundaries.

Conclusion – the problem of identity politics

 The term identity politics is used in various ways, but I feel quite clear about my own usage here. It’s when your identity is so wrapped up in a political or cultural or religious or class or caste or professional grouping, that it trumps your own independent critical thinking and analysis. The use of ‘we think’ or ‘we believe’, is the red flag for these attitudes, but of course this usage isn’t always overt or conscious. The best and probably only way to deal with this kind of thinking is through constructive engagement, drawing people out of the groupthink intellectual ghetto through argument, evidence and invitations to reconsider (or consider for the first time) and if that doesn’t work, firmness regarding the evidence-based view together with keeping future lines of communications open. They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, and it’s a piece of wisdom that works on a pragmatic and a humane level. And watch out for that firmness, because the evidence is rarely fixed. Education too is important. As an educator, I find that many students are open to the knowledge I have to offer, and are sometimes animated and inspired by it, regardless of their background. The world’s an amazing place, and students can be captivated by its amazingness, if it’s presented with enthusiasm. That can lead to explorations that can change minds. Schools are, or can be, places where identity politics can fragment as peers from different backgrounds can converge and clash, sometimes in a constructive way. We need to watch for and combat the echo-chamber effect of social media, a new development that often reinforces false and counter-productive ideas – and encourages mean-spirited attacks on faceless adversaries. Breaking down walls and boundaries, rather than constructing them, is the best solution. Real interactions rather than virtual ones, and thinking about the background and humanity of the other before leaping into the fray (I’m beginning to sound saintlier than I’ve ever really been – must be the Ha Ji-won influence!)

Written by stewart henderson

April 19, 2017 at 10:27 am

does this change everything? Paris, Naomi Klein, extractivism and blockadia

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Canto: Well I’ve just managed to finish reading Naomi Klein’s great big book about the politics of climate change, This changes everything, and since this more or less coincides with the recent political decisions made about tackling climate in Paris, I thought we might spend this session, or even a few sessions, on the future of clean energy, the fossil fuel industry and so forth.

Jacinta: Ah yes, the Paris conference, can you fill me in on that? All I know is that the outcome is being touted as a turning point, a watershed moment, but I presume none of it is enforceable, and I can’t really see the fossil fuel giants giving up the ghost, or considering anything much beyond business as usual…

Canto: Okay, the UN climate change conference in Paris ended on December 12 2015, having run for about 3 weeks. The principal outcome has been the Paris agreement, which was a more substantive agreement on emissions reduction than has been achieved in the past. It apparently represents a consensus drawn from some 196 national representatives.

Jacinta: And I seem to recall the figure of 2% being bandied about. What was that about?

Canto: Ummm, I think you might be referring to the plan, or hope, to limit global warming to 2 degrees, through zero net greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the 21st century, globally.

Jacinta: Wow, that’s some hope.

Canto: Well the hope is to keep the warming to well under 2 degrees C, preferably aiming for 1.5, which would entail substantial reductions well before 2050, but of course this is all promises, promises.

Jacinta: So what about enforcement, and how is this going to be achieved nation by nation, considering that some nations are huge emitters, and some nations, like India, are still developing and industrialising?

Canto: Right so there are all these semi-commitments and promises, but crunch time starts in April 2016, from which time the relevant parties are asked to sign up to the agreement – that’s 197 parties in all, including all member nations of the UN, the European Union and some not-quite-nations like Palestine and the Cook Islands. They have a year to sign up, and the agreement will only come into force if 55 countries that produce 55% of global greenhouse emissions sign up.

Jacinta: Wait, does that mean all of the top 55 greenhouse gas emitters, or any 55 that together emit 55% of the greenhouse gases emitted by humans?

Canto: Uhhh, I’m not sure but I think it’s the latter.

Jacinta: Great, so Australia doesn’t have to sign. Quel soulagement!

Canto: Funny that, because the Wikipedia article on the Paris agreement, specifically mentions the climate change ‘skepticism’ of our conservative government…

Jacinta: Wow, what an honour.

Canto: Time to lobby our environment minister. Of course there are a lot of people protesting that this agreement doesn’t go far enough – not so much in the targets as in the voluntary nature of it all. I mean, it may not even come into voluntary force if nations don’t sign up to it, and of course there’s no enforcement mechanism. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the situation:

The Agreement will not become binding on its member states until 55 parties who produce over 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas have ratified the Agreement. There is doubt whether some countries will agree to do so. Each country that ratifies the agreement will be required to set a target for emission reduction, but the amount will be voluntary. There will be [no] mechanism to force a country to set a target by a specific date and no enforcement if a set target is not met. There will be only a “name and shame” system or as Janos Pasztor, the U.N. assistant secretary-general on climate change, told CBS News (US), a “name and encourage” plan.

Jacinta: Well I think it’s definitely a positive development, which will add pressure to the fossil fuel industries and their supporters. I notice that one of our green pollies was castigating the government the other day about the expansion of the Abbott Point coal terminal, citing the Paris agreement. That’s going to be a much repeated dagger-thrust into the future. So how does this all connect with Naomi Klein’s book?

Canto: Well I think you’re right to accentuate the positives. I mean, how can you seriously police or enforce such an agreement without interfering with the ‘national sovereignty’ that so many nations bellow about – especially when there’s a hint of criticism from the UN? So the first real positive coming from this confab is that all the parties are in agreement about the imminent threat of AGW, and they’ve actually managed to come to a broad agreement over a target and a goal. That’s a big deal. The second positive is, as you say, the impact of that consensus on the battle against the cashed-up fossil fuel industries, and the mostly conservative governments around the world that are still into science denialism, including our own government. As to This changes everything, Klein sees the AGW issue as a possible game-changer for the politics of global capitalism and free marketeering, which is rather ambitious, but she puts her faith in the protest movements, the indigenous rights movements and other grassroots movements who are, as she sees it, rising up more than ever before to create headaches for the business-as-usual model. She calls this grassroots approach ‘blockadia’, probably not an original coinage.


Jacinta: So she sees it as an issue to fight global capitalism, to replace it with… what? Surely the renewable energy industries are capitalist industries too?

Cant: Well yes, I think there’s a certain amount of idealism in her view, an old-fashioned back-to-nature ethic, and I don’t think she emphasises the solutions and the science as much as she emphasises the problems and the politics, but if you take the view that the fossil fuel industries need to be phased out, sooner rather than later, you’ll perhaps be as much inspired by the heroic and hard-working efforts to prevent mining and drilling – which, let’s face it, have caused huge devastation in many areas – as you will by the innovations and improvements in clean energy. Which brings me to the other term used a lot in Klein’s book – extractivism.

Jacinta: Which presumably stands not just for the fossil fuel industry but the whole mentality of ‘what can we extract from this entity?’, be it animal vegetable or mineral.

Canto: The ancient Greeks did it with their slaves, the British did it with their colonies…

Jacinta: And their slaves..

Canto: The tobacco industry are doing it with the resource of willing smokers in non-western countries, poachers are doing it with elephants in Africa, the porn industry is doing it with pretty and mostly impoverished girls in the US and Europe, multinational companies are doing it with cheap labour worldwide. Extractivism has always been with us…

Jacinta: Point taken but I think we’re getting a bit carried away here. I presume Klein was using the term in a more limited sense, though perhaps with a nod to broader extractivist tendencies. And I have to say, quite apart from the devastation caused by tailings and disasters like Deepwater Horizon, I’ve always felt there’s something not quite right about our recent cavalier exploitation of a process of incredibly slow transformation of once-living and evolving entities – our ancestors in a sense – into coal and oil. Doesn’t it seem somehow sacrilegious?

Canto: Well perhaps, but I’m not sure if ‘exploitation’ is the right word. People get exploited. Okay animals can get exploited. But dead matter turning into coal? All species do what they can to survive and thrive, and they don’t worry about the cost to others or to historical processes. Right now parrots are feasting on my neighbour’s fruit trees. They’re extracting what they can in one go, and they’ll be back for more unless someone stops them. My neighbours might consider the parrots a pest, but that’s only because they want to extract as much as they can from those trees, to make jam, or to add fibre and other nutritional elements to their diet. As to the fossil fuels I’m all for keeping them in the ground, but more because of the damage they do to our atmosphere than because it’s ‘nice’ and ‘respectful’ not to extract them.

Jacinta: Spoken like a true instrumental scientist, but I can’t help feeling there’s more to it than you say. But what do you think about the view that this is a game-changer for global politics? Klein subtitles her book ‘capitalism v the climate’, as if one or the other has to come out on top. Do you think that’s really the choice?

Canto: No I don’t, but I doubt that Klein really imagines, or even wants this to spell the end of capitalism. I’m no anti-capitalist of course, but then I see capitalism in much broader terms. Those parrots are capitalising on a resource previously unavailable to them, and they’ll continue to do so unless prevented, by netting or something worse. Fossil fuel companies have learned to capitalise on a resource previously unavailable to them, before we learned how to process and extract energy from such material, and they’ll continue to do so unless they’re prevented, by legislation, by blockadia, or by the availability of more attractive alternatives, such as the more effective exploitation of the sun. Or capitalising on the solar resource.

Jacinta: So you believe that all humans, or rather, all creatures are capitalists? Isn’t that a bit of a narrow view?

the capitalist menace

                                                                                  the capitalist menace

Canto: Well no, as I say, I think it’s a broad view of the capitalist concept. But of course you might say that this hardly accounts for blockadia. If we’re all capitalists at heart, how do we account for the amount of energy so many citizens put into blocking capitalist exploitation? But that’s easily explained by the parrots and fruit example. The parrots’ gain is the neighbours’ loss. The neighbours have gone to a lot of trouble cultivating the ground, planting the trees, watering and fertilising, and these pesky parrots have come along without so much as a by your leave, and devastated the crop. Similarly farmers who have put a lot of time and energy into cultivating their land, and indigenous people who have learned over generations how to fish and hunt in an area in such a way that stocks can still be replenished rather than devastated, are naturally outraged that these fossil fuel companies have come along and ‘poisoned the well’. The farmers and the indigenes are also capitalists, very effective capitalists for their own needs, but they’re faced with different types of capitalists with different needs. So, to me, it’s a matter of resources, needs, diversity and negotiation.

Jacinta: Hmmm, well I’m inclined to agree with you. Of course indigenous people, such as our Aborigines, like to talk of spiritual connections to the land and its bird and animal life, but I’m not much into spirituality. But I like the idea that even though they’re into hunting and killing those creatures in order to survive, they tell stories about them, and exhibit a great deal of respect and fondness for them. That seems healthy to me.

Canto: I agree completely. I’m not trying to say ‘all is capitalism’. There’s much more to life than that. The beauty of that story-telling and that affection for the land and its inhabitants and their ways is that it’s not a kind of master-race view. The Judeo-Christian view has been that all things, including all creatures, have been put here for our benefit. Of course modern Christianity has largely re-interpreted this as custodianship, which is an improvement, but I prefer the perspective that we’re all in this together, and we should look out for each other. Birds have to eat, and they like to eat fruit, and birds are fantastic creatures. They deserve our consideration.

Jacinta: Well that’s a nice note to end on. And what about the fossil fuel industry?

Canto: I think it’s had its day. It’s time to move beyond it.

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2015 at 8:45 am

women and men: un discours sans fin

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Angel and Devil

Jacinta: Okay Canto, I rather hesitate to open up this subject, because I can’t see an end to it, but I want you to repeat here something you’ve said to me before about women and power, which goes to differences between men and women, an area subject to endless debate and contestation.

Canto: Ah well, I was considering how political power, in the world, is largely in the hands of men, and what the world would be like if the situation was reversed. It’s my humble opinion that the world would be less violent, more collaborative, and a lot more fun.

Jacinta: Well as a woman I’m obviously pleased to hear you say that, but we do try to look at evidence rather than personal opinion here, so what in the way of evidence leads you to this conclusion?

Canto: Well… where do we begin? Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that women are made and not born, a highly contestable truism as it seems that women are actually wired differently from men, having less neurons but more connections between neurons, in toto and on average, so the very question of what it means to be a woman, or a man is one we’re unlikely to get to the bottom of, but I’d like to start with bonobos, always a favourite topic of mine. They appear to have diverged from chimpanzees only between a million and two million years ago, and they look very similar to chimps, which is likely why they weren’t identified as a separate species until the 1930s, and the differences seem to be far more social than anatomical. I mean, they share the same sexual dimorphism as chimps, and humans, and yet they’re essentially matriarchal, due it seems to social arrangements rather than individual size and strength. That gives me great hope for humans, especially now that physical size and strength are less relevant than ever as leadership qualities.

Jacinta: Ah, well now I get the fun part – you think a human matriarchal society will turn out to be a gigantic mutual wankfest. But what about civilisation? What about science and technology? Considering that women, regardless of culture or nationality, are more into astrology, fortune-telling, spiritualism, religion, naturopathy, and virtually every other pseudo-science and primitivism you care to mention, than men are.

Canto: Well, you’re talking about statistical differences, but you well know that there are many fine female astrophysicists, neurosurgeons, geneticists, experimental psychologists, whatever. You’re hardly the only female skeptic, even if they’re in a minority. And who knows what would happen if females were in a majority, with a history of being in a majority, with respect to leadership and power? Maybe you’d find then that it was men who were more into pseudo-science, statistically speaking.

Jacinta: True, and that brings me to a study analysed on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe recently. I had read, like you, that women, overall, had more white matter (the myelinated connections between neurons) than men – by a large factor, and that men had more grey matter, though this was concentrated around particular areas such as the amygdalae and the hypothalamus. However, in the study referred to, the researchers wanted to find if there were any categorical differences between male and female brains. They looked at 4 data sets of MRI and fMRI scans, checking out anatomical and connectional or networking differences, to make comparisons. According to SGU’s Steven Novella (a practising neurologist), the media over-simplified the findings as saying there were no differences, but in fact it was more interesting than that. Novella found this study to be essentially an exercise in examining how we categorise things (how do we define and categorise a disease, for example, or a planet, or a species). How we do so depends on a range of factors, and increasing knowledge, and better technology, helps us to develop parameters for categorising…

Canto: Though this also raises more problems… the more we know or learn, the more problematic our previous categories tend to become…

Jacinta: Anyway, in the case of female and male brains, the researchers distinguished between categorical differences and statistical differences. They used genitalia as a categorical difference. As Novella explains it, with genitalia we have a bimodal system, with male and female equipment…

Canto: I prefer to call it tackle…

Jacinta: And nothing really between. The vast majority of people, as subjects, can be placed in one category or another. Of course there are exceptions, but they are, always arguably, statistically insignificant. So, using this as a yardstick, the researchers wanted to know if there are categorical differences between male and female brains in the same way that there are categorical differences between male and female genitalia. One way to distinguish between categorical and statistical differences is whether, once you know which category an individual belongs to, that provides certainty about their particular traits. If it does, you have a categorical difference. So the researchers looked at about 40 different anatomical and functional aspects of the brain. They found that, generally speaking, there are statistical differences between males and females, in the size of various regions, the richness of the networks in various regions, but with a lot of overlap between the sexes; so it was statistical but not categorical. And the study didn’t look at causes of these differences, whether biological or social (we know that brains can be wired up through social conditioning to some degree). But they also did studies of individuals over the range of the 40 anatomical and functional features to determine how many were ‘typically’ male or female, or somewhere in between. One way to capture this was to ask – what percentage of people had 100% of their brain regions (those 40 features analysed) that were ‘typical’ of their sex? Among the 4 data sets, that percentage was 0 to 8%. So, very few men have ‘all-male’ brain regions, in terms of size and connections. Some 28% to 58% had a mixture of both.

Canto: So let me get this clear, the essential finding, according to Novella, was that though there were statistical differences in specific brain areas – and these are the differences described in ‘Do men and women have different brains?’ in How Stuff Works, from which the new ussr’s earlier post was largely derived – there is a lot of individual variation, which muddies the water rather a lot.

Jacinta: Yes, and I would say hopelessly, at least for those who want to think in stereotypes. As Novella puts it, people are mosaics of male and female traits. Another way of thinking about this, again put succinctly by Novella, is that we can’t assume that because a person is male – or female – we know what that person’s brain regions will be like. Statistical differences can’t automatically tell us about the brain region of any individual. There is no typically male or female brain in the way that there are typically male or female genitalia. And that is really interesting, and it might even mean that it’s illegitimate to say, ‘oh she’s female but she thinks like a man’, or ‘but she has a male brain’. There’s no male brain, or female brain, there are individual brains that are a product of all the influences, genetic, epigenetic, environmental, social, hormonal, psychological, whatever you can think of that influences brain activity and wiring.

Canto: And yet, and yet. Statistical differences do count for something don’t they? We still have the statistics showing that women are more into astrology and naturopathy than men…

Jacinta: Yes but what this study shows is that you can’t base this on some essentialist argument about female brains, and isn’t that a good thing?

Canto: Well, definitely, but then it works the other way. My argument that if women ruled we’d be so much better off can’t be based on anything essentialist either! Maybe being in power would turn their brains into something  like the statistically typical male brain. My hopes are turning to dust…

Jacinto: No, no, don’t despair Canto. Consider the bonobos of the jungle…


Written by stewart henderson

December 20, 2015 at 11:42 pm

Posted in brain, gender, genetics, ideology, neurology, sex

Tagged with , ,

Is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?

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Jacinta: Okay so here’s a topical topic. I was listening with baited breath – I can do that, I’m a multi-tasker – to Malcolm Turnbull’s post-election speech the other day, and along with the whole nation I heard him extoll three ‘roolly good things’, in his estimation. The holy trinity – freedom, the individual and the market. Did y’all hear that? And I thought, Jeez, the libertarians among us will be doing cartwheels right now. And I further thought ‘hang on a minute Malcolm, turn that bull around’.

Canto: I see, so you prefer slavery, group-think and state control?

Jacinta: Ah very good, but let’s prise ourselves out of the straightjacket of ideology and slip into something more comfortable, like reality. Of course freedom’s a good thing, but of course it has its limits. And of course individuals are great, but as any mathematician will tell you, all individuals are members of a set, that’s actually what makes them individuals, and the market..

Canto: That’s not a very good analogy, I don’t think – that one about individuals.

Jacinta: That wasn’t an analogy.

Canto: Well… maybe, but bringing maths into it isn’t very helpful.

Jacinta: Okay. Okay, let me focus on the individual thing, because that’s probably my biggest gripe – it all flows from a misconception of the individual, IMHO.

Canto: What flows?

Jacinta: The horrors of libertarianism. I’ve been bottling this up for years, now I’m going to let it all seethe out. And it just so happens that ‘All hail freedom, the individual and the mighty market’ is essentially the libertarian mantra. Of course I don’t take Malcolm’s mellifluencies too seriously, but libertarianism really shits me.

Canto: But really – politics? Can’t we talk about water on Mars? Or Homo naledi?

Jacinta: Well, there is world enough, and time…

Canto: Bullshit.

Jacinta: Ok I’ll try to be the soul of wit. Libertarians – and I know they come in all shapes, sizes and political colours – tend to believe in small government, minimal regulation and the invisible, wonderfully shaping and fixing hand of the market. I got my first dose of libertarianism years ago when I read – or tried to read – Anarchy, State and Utopiaby the American philosopher Robert Nozick. I could barely comprehend it, but I could see it was underpinned by a sacrosanct notion of rights, particularly the rights of the individual. It was also, I thought, an overly rational analysis of how individuals might aggregate. Or rather, that’s how I’ve come to think of it since. I had no idea what to think of it at the time.


Canto: So how do you think individuals aggregate?

Jacinta: No no what I think doesn’t matter, it’s more about what history and psychology and sociology tells us. And they tell us about families and extended families and kinship groups and trade affiliations, becoming ever more extended and convoluted as societies grow. And all this without any concept of rights.

Canto: Okay I think I see where you’re coming from. You think the individual shouldn’t be seen as the central human unit, or political unit, you’re wanting to emphasise social connections.

Jacinta: Of course! We didn’t get where we are now, the top predators of the biosphere for better or worse…

Canto: The fat controllers of the planet…

Jacinta: We didn’t get to this situation as individuals, we got here because we’re the most socially-oriented mammals around. Our language, our technology, our superior brainpower, these are all socially constructed. And our systems of government are just ways of organising and trying to get the best out of this dynamic, interactive, co-operative and competitive society.

Canto: So there are legitimately diverse views about the role of government. So what’s wrong with that? Libertarians just happen to lean towards the individualist, unregulated, small-government side.

Jacinta: Well, as I’ve said, I’m not so much interested in opinions as in what actually works to create the most effective society…

Canto: You’re trying to be scientific, but the question of what makes for an effective society will have different answers, not based on science. Some will say an effective society is one that looks after its minorities and its disadvantaged, others will say that diversity and dynamism is key, and this means inevitably that there will be winners and losers. How can there be an objective, scientific definition of an effective society?

Jacinta: Okay, I concede your point that there are a range of legitimate views on this, but I would be guided by what works, and that would reduce the range of legitimacy. Extreme libertarianism – of the ‘there is no society, only individuals’ kind – seems to me to be paradoxically an outcome of the success of certain societies in educating and empowering their members, so that they start to fantasise about themselves as ‘self-made’ and owing nothing to anyone. It’s delusional and would result in scrapping all history has taught us about the communities of language and shared knowledge and values which have shaped us. It’s an ahistorical ideology which has never been instantiated anywhere. Not to mention its arrogant (and ultimately self-defeating) selfishness. Of course the other extreme is also unworkable, that of communism with an equal share of communal goods, which would stifle innovation and diversity and would have to be imposed from above.

wtf? Most people don't give a tinker's toss about the state when they act. But they do think about the consequences for others

wtf? Most people don’t give a tinker’s toss about the state when they act. But they do think about the consequences for others

Canto: Which would be self-contradictory because in communism, there is no ‘above’, presumably absolute equality is just meant to happen naturally…

Jacinta: There’s no perfect or perfectly fair society, just some are fairer than others, and it’s an endless balancing act, it seems to me, between encouraging the freedom to develop ideas and ‘get ahead’, and protecting others from being exploited and done down. So to me it’s a matter of pragmatism and endless adjustment rather than gung-ho ideology. Individuals are pretty well infinitely complex so you would expect society to multiply that complexity to to a new level of infinity.

Canto: But I notice that many libertarians tend to avoid going on about ‘society’, they prefer to focus their ire on ‘the state’, as if it’s the enemy of society.

Jacinta: Oh yes, good point, the rhetoric goes that the state is this abstract, inhuman monster that steals our money, stifles our initiative and makes a mess of everything it touches. Insofar as it consists of people, it consists of really dumb or power-mad types who haven’t seen the light and just don’t realise that society functions better either without the state or with a minimalist one. They’ve never been able to point to any evidence to support their claims though. Essentially, the libertarian ‘state’ has been trialled in the real world even less than the communist state, its polar opposite, has been.

Canto: So how is it supposed to work?

Jacinta: Well, clearly there are libertarians of many different types and degrees who would argue endlessly about that. But many of them seem to think it would grow ‘organically’ through adherence to certain basic principles, one of which has to do with the primacy of private property, though I’m not sure how to articulate it. Another is that no law or imposition should be applied that interferes with an individual’s liberty, the idea being I think, that you’re free to do what you like as long as it doesn’t interfere with everybody else’s right to do what he or she likes, which when you think about it is a recipe for disaster, because who decides between competing claims – for example my right to enjoy the peace and quiet of my own residence versus my neighbour’s right to play shite music all night with the volume up to eleven?

Canto: Aww, is that neighbour still bothering you Jass?

Jacinta: Fuck off. Actually what really bothers me is the obsession with private property and ownership. Coming from a pretty impoverished background, I was always more fond of the ‘property is theft’ mantra. And that reminds me of a story from my youth. I was living in a share-house very close to the spacious grounds of Saint Peter’s College, the biggest and most exclusive private school in South Australia. It must’ve been school holiday time, and we decided to take our racquets and balls and have a hit around on one of their tennis courts. There was no fence or anything, we just walked in and started playing. There was no net either, so it wasn’t a particularly serious hit-out, but we were absorbed enough not to notice a fellow scurrying across the greensward to tick us off. The look of outrage on the face of this fellow was unforgettable, it was as if he’d caught us pissing on the altar…

Canto: Which is exactly what you were doing mate.

Jacinta: His get-up was unforgettable too, he had this bright orange cravat, and sort of pantaloons with braces as I remember…

Canto: You’ve forgotten the candy-striped jacket and the Old Boys’ cap…

Jacinta: No, it was too hot for that. Anyway, I remember his words, more or less. ‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know this is private property!!’

Canto: Ah yes, a defining moment in the Great Australian Class War. So you made mince-meat out of him with your graphite, carbon-fibre and kevlar weaponry?

Jacinta: Well, we were just teenagers. I remember we stood our ground for a while, more out of shock than anything. So he went on haranguing us about our outrageous behaviour and threatening to call the police, so we wandered off. But I was so infuriated when I realised what was happening. I wish I’d confronted the guy, and I ran though imaginary narratives in my head many times afterwards. It was a defining moment for me, actually, it crystallised for me my attitude to private property…

Canto: Which is?

Jacinta: Well, it’s never been very important to me – I mean, as part of his harangue, this guy said something like ‘how would you like it if someone came into your garden and started..’, and my honest answer would’ve been that it wouldn’t have bothered me, certainly nothing like the way it bothered him. And the comparison was odorous anyway, I didn’t own any spacious grounds, I wasn’t born into that world. The way this guy mentioned private property, as if it was his Lord and Master, to be protected and fought for with life and limb, it just sickened me.

Canto: You were outraged?

Jacinta: Yeah, I suppose our intellectual positions are just post-hoc rationalisations of some basic feelings.

Canto: Reason is but the slave of the passions and all that. Anyway, I’m keen to get on to some of those more interesting topics. So let’s get back to the original question – is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?

Jacinta: Well the correct answer is that he didn’t say enough, in that first Prime Ministerial speech, for us to make that inference. He believes strongly in freedom. So do I, of course. He believes in the individual. So do I, and I believe individual expression and effort should be nurtured. He believes in the market or markets. I most certainly do too, as sources of exchange, cross-fertilisation, community and growth. The devil or delight is in the detail. I mean, I’ve called his statement a libertarian mantra, which it is, but it’s also classical liberalism. In the end, though, we need to judge governments on their actions, not their words. We’ll have to wait and see.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2015 at 10:06 am

the most absolute way to lose credibility

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now I know not buy a used car from this guy

now I know not buy a used car from this guy

Daniel Dennett, in his most recent writings, excerpted in the second issue of The new philosopher (a mag which will be a part of my regular reading from now on) made this interesting point:

When you’re reading or skimming argumentative essays, especially by philosophers, here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for “surely” in the document, and check each occurrence.

Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument. Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning).

Dennett goes on to prove the point with some examples. He performs a useful service here, for “surely” and similar terms like “clearly” seem anodyne enough to pass under our radar. The term “absolutely, not so, and as such, it’s far less sophisticated. In fact, it’s one of the most obvious signposts for BS that we have, and it should send any worthwhile skeptic’s antennae bouncing off the ceiling. The anti-vaccination guru screams that vaccination is absolutely the worst medical intervention in human history, the creationist that evilution is absolutely contrary to their god’s plan, and the climate-change denier asseverates that there’s absolutely no credible evidence…

Step no further, for here lurks the big bad demon of absolutely committed ideology. It’s not the sort of term you read in the philosophical articles Dennett has been targeting, but of course it’s everywhere on the internet, and in the generally unsophisticated arena of political debate.

So I was amused to hear our current human rights commissioner Tim Wilson falling into the trap, like a drunken stumblebum falling off a well-signposted cliff. Wilson was on a panel of the ABC’s current affairs program The drum, and one of the topics discussed was the impact that the anti-vaccination movement was having on the incidence of measles in the USA. Wilson’s response was essentially pro-science, and so condemnatory of the anti-vaccination trend, though he also invoked the interesting argument that this was to protect children, while adults should be free to be as anti-science as they liked, and presumably free to promote the kind of anti-science agenda that’s causing all the problems in the first place.

But while it’s a thorny question as to whether or not good science should be enforced in some way, it was Wilson’s response to another panel commentator that really tickled me. The commentator pointed out the parallels between the anti-vaccination movement and climate change deniers – a fairly obvious point, I would’ve thought – and Wilson jumped in with the claim that ‘there are absolutely no parallels…’

Considering the fairly obvious parallels, Wilson’s remark (which he wasn’t able to elaborate on due to to it being made just as the final credits were about to roll), was a massive red flag, which immediately prompted me to check his bonafides on anthropogenic global warming.

But before checking out Wilson, let me state the parallels. First, both the vaccination debate and the AGW debate are loud and passionate. They also both exhibit the age-old truism that there’s an inverse relation between passionately-held positions and knowledge of the subject. Third and most important, they are both debates over what is essentially settled science. In the case of vaccination, the science tells us that vaccinations have led to the prevention and reduction of multiple diseases around the world over many decades, and that the negative effects of vaccination, if any, are far outweighed by the lives saved and the suffering minimised. In the case of AGW, climate scientists are in consensus that the globe is experiencing a warming event, and that this warming event, as measured through atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, is being significantly contributed to by human activity, and emissions of CO2 in particular.

Wilson’s impressive resumé here tells me that he’s ‘currently completing a Graduate Diploma of Energy and the Environment (Climate Science and Global Warming) at Perth’s Murdoch University’ and that he’s an ‘international public policy analyst specialising in international trade, health, intellectual property and climate change policy’, so he’s presumably well acquainted with climate science, which makes his ‘absolutely’ claim all the more odd. Digging deeper though, we find that for some time he was the policy director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a well-known free market think tank. Free marketeers are not always keen on accepting AGW, as it tends to interfere with business…

Wilson himself has been pretty careful about his public comments on AGW – at least I can’t find any outrageously silly remarks from him, but in 2010, while he was the IPA’s director of climate change policy, the organisation brought out a publication called Climate change: the facts, which is largely anti-climate science propaganda, as is evidenced by the fact that none of the contributors agree with the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists, i.e. that AGW is a serious problem that we need to act upon. Some of the authors accept AGW but minimise its extent and its negative effects while others simply deny its existence. The publication includes as authors the wholly discredited Ian Plimer, and the quite literally insane Christopher Monckton, who has no scientific training whatsoever. It also includes ‘old guard’ scientists such as Garth Partridge, Richard Lindzen, Bob Carter and William Kininmouth, all well into their seventies, and with links to the fossil fuel industries. One contributor, Willie Soon, has since been found to be a hireling of the fossil fuel lobby, to the tune of over $1 million. Others, such as Nigel Lawson, the eighty-something-year-old ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher, just make the publication look more embarrassingly irrelevant than it might have been for propaganda purposes. One has to wonder why the book was published – it must surely have harmed the climate deniers’ cause amongst the fence-sitters at whom it was presumably targeted.

The quality of the work can be judged by its brief introduction, written by John Roskam, current executive director of the IPA. Take this excerpt:

We don’t believe ‘the science is settled’. As a think tank committed to the ideals of free and open enquiry and debate we are not afraid to stand against the mainstream of prevailing elite opinion.

Why is the word elite in there, in a book supposedly dedicated to debating the facts? Scientists are always debating, criticising each other’s published work, suggesting alternative interpretations of raw data – that’s a standard scientific process. Skepticism as to results is a sine qua non of scientific enquiry. But they never describe those they disagree with as elites. That would suggest that something else was at play. It seems particularly inappropriate when the writers themselves are Lords, ex-leaders of government, and linked to some of the world’s largest corporations, while those accused of elitism are usually living on an unreliable stream of grants and scholarships.

Welcome, though, to the world of climate change denial, which, far from presenting alternative facts, is largely fact-free. Although I’ve not read Climate change: the facts, I expect it will present the same variety of views, many of them contradicting each other, that Naomi Klein describes in the first chapter of her book on the politics of climate change, This changes everything. Her description – which hits you like an icy cold shower – is of a conference dedicated to climate change denial run by the USA’s Heartland Institute, another right-wing think tank, though much bigger and more bullish than the IPA. And surprise surprise, a number of the Australian book’s contributors were speakers at that conference. As it turns out, right-wing think tanks are almost solely responsible for the slew of anti-AGW propaganda that assails us today, and of all the contentious scientific issues, this one divides most neatly along politico-ideological lines.

So this helps to explain why Tim Wilson says he finds ‘absolutely no parallels’ between AGW and the vaccination ‘debate’. For him, though not for climate scientists, the science is not settled. But, being educated on the matter, he also knows that what he wants to be true, really isn’t. So, to cover what he knows to be bullshit, he resorts, quite unthinkingly, to the word ‘absolutely’. What a fine mess bad faith gets people into, and how painfully obvious it all is.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2015 at 2:19 pm

Christianity’s future: 3 national perspectives.

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Since I’m currently off work due to illness I feel like cheering myself up by doing another number on how Christianity is faring in various countries, such as the USA, Britain and France – where I’ll be heading, hopefully, in March-April (France, that is). A nice gloating session might be just what the doctor ordered. So here goes.

the not so united kingdom


Would that nationalism was in as sharp a decline as Christianity is, but that’s one for the future. The UK’s last census was in 2011, as in Australia, so comparisons are irresistible. As of that census, the percentage of Christians was 59.5 (down from 71.8 in 2001), slightly below ours at 61.1 The no religion faction comes in at 25.7%, and unstated at 7.2%. In Australia the nones are still down at 22.3% with 9.4% not clearly stated. So the UK still seems to be ahead of us in the race, but of course I’m being overly simplistic. It’s unlikely that the exact same questions are asked in both censuses, and framing makes an enormous difference. And in any case self-reporting is hardly the best way to get a handle on such a socially pressured subject as religious belief. Not that it lacks any value – the fact that a decreasing percentage of Britishers are saying they’re not religious tells us something about the way those social pressures have eased over time. I think all we can really say from the census figures on Christianity in the UK and Australia is that they’re both travelling in the same direction at roughly the same rate – at least over the last decade or so, because the religious question was only introduced as a voluntary option in the British census in 2001. The term post-Christian is beginning to be used.

However, unlike Australia, the UK has other major surveys of religion, the 3 major ones being the Labour Force Survey, the British Social Attitudes survey and the European Social Survey, all of which, of course, ask different questions. The census in England and Wales asks the question ‘What is your religion?’ and provides a list of option boxes, with ‘no religion’ at the top. Scotland, my birthplace, has a different question – ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, and this slightly more alarming question might account for the larger percentage of the non-religious in that country (or is it just a region?) Some 36.7% of Scots answered ‘none’ to this question in 2011. I find this quite satisfying in that Scotland came under the influence of Calvinism for centuries – a harsh form of protestantism infected with ‘predestination’, a variously understood and variously modified concept which in its bleakest interpretation is entirely fatalistic. Maybe a long dose of that craziness has helped the Scots come to their senses more quickly than their neighbours.

Wikipedia summarises the results of the other surveys thus:

The Labour Force Survey asked the question “What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?” with a response of 15.7% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2004 and 22.4% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2010.
The British Social Attitudes survey asked the question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” with 41.22% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2001 and 50.67% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2009.
The European Social Survey asked the question “Which religion or denomination do you belong to at present?” with 50.54% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2002 and 52.68% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2008.

All of which emphasises, again, that the responses are vitally connected to the framing of the question. None of these surveys, I would argue, are reliable in any scientific sense as an account of the actual religiosity of the nation. They all involve self-reporting. That doesn’t mean that they’re worthless of course. They’re particularly useful if you keep asking the same question over time, which is why I don’t favour chopping and changing the question in the forlorn hope of getting a more ‘accurate’ picture.

A surely more telling indication of the decline of Christianity in the UK is church attendance. It amuses me to note that, though both denominations are in decline, the overall church attendance of Catholics in the UK is higher than that of Anglicans, mainly due to immigration. It was only a few centuries ago that Catholics were being executed for their faith in England. Fat King Henry must be turning in his gravy. Wikipedia again well summarises the situation:

Currently, regular church attendance in the United Kingdom stands at 6% of the population with the average age of the attendee being 51. This shows a decline in church attendance since 1980, when regular attendance stood at 11% with an average age of 37. It is predicted that by 2020, attendance will be around 4% with an average age of 56. This decline in church attendance has forced many churches to close down across the United Kingdom, with the Church of England alone being forced to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Their fates include dereliction, demolition and residential conversion

I’m sure you all get the drift of the drift.

So the UK has come a long way since Guy Fawkes, along with his aristocratic confederates, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the royal family with them, in the hope of bringing the nation back to the OTR (One True Religion). Since the Act of Settlement (1701) all monarchs have been obliged to ‘join in communion with the Church of England’, which disqualifies Catholics (and all other denominations and religions), but pressure has been brought to bear to end this discrimination, as well as to disestablish the Anglican Church. This seems inevitable, given the rapid decline of that institution. 

the not so united states


The USA has long been in a right religious mess, and some of the reasons for it were canvassed in a short essay at Salon in May. Many other westerners could be forgiven for thinking that the country is a basket case, full of the most bizarre scientific denialism and educational vandalism, a breeding ground for hate preachers, life-denying cultists and home-schooled ignoramuses, but a closer look will reveal much that’s hopeful. The USA, we shouldn’t forget, is the third most populated country in the world, with a population diversity second to none. Even assuming that only 10% of that population is non-religious (a conservative estimate) that’s way more than the entire population of Australia.

The USA, like France, doesn’t measure religiosity in its census, but there are a number of important surveys that can fill in the picture for us. The Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 found that 16.1% of the population was ‘religiously unaffiliated’, which is not so far behind Australia’s ‘no religion’ set, though the extent to which those two sets are comparable could be argued till the end of days. A more recent Pew survey, results published in late 2012, put the unaffiliated figure at just under 20%. Encouragingly, these people overwhelmingly state that they’re not looking for a religion to join (though many believe in gods or are ‘spiritual’) and consider that established churches are overly concerned with money, power, rules and politics. The extreme noisiness of the religious right in the US is having a negative effect on the majority. And the change is really quite rapid, as rapid as that of many other western countries. Here’s an interesting quote from the summary of the 2012 results:

In addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years. These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.

This seems to indicate that drops in involvement lead more or less quickly to a drop in actual belief.

Other surveys show a range of results. A 2007 Gallup poll had the number expressing disbelief or uncertainty at around 14%. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008 had some 76% of respondents identifying as Christians compared to 86% in 1990. Another survey organisation is the Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA), which basically provides an overview of all the major surveys, but I’ve found it hard to get anything clear out of its data. It is clearly a pro-religious organisation.

The Wikipedia website dealing specifically with Christianity in the US points out the usual decline, but notes that church attendance is still way up on that in France and Australia. The ARIS survey of 2008, in its commentary, states that the drop in religiosity has slowed considerably since the 90s:

The “Nones” (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008

The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

So multiculturalism, as a diluter of traditional Christianity, is one of the many factors contributing to what is undeniable, in spite of arguments that can be had about the pace of change. Christianity is fading, even in its self-proclaimed heartland, and there’s no real likelihood of a reversal.



 France presents the same story only more so. With no census stats, the various major surveys range from 40% to 58% of the people self-describing as Christians, with the non-religious at between 31% and 35%. The average age of believers is rising and church attendance has suffered a spectacular collapse. Evangelical protestant churches are growing, but from a very low base in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The idea that the evangelists are onto something ‘great’, as this commentator has it, seems grossly exaggerated.

Again, what fascinates me is the incredible variation in findings, with only one clear trend identified, that of overall decline. According to some, the non-believers already well outnumber the believers, and Salon has listed France, along with Australia, one of the best countries for atheists.

France appears to be abandoning Christianity more quickly than other western countries, but it’s hard to tell for sure from all the contradictory surveys and questions. As something of a Francophile, I have a particular interest in the history of France’s connections with Christianity, so that’ll be the focus of the rest of this post.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, from the second century CE, Christians were providing headaches for the administration in Gaul as well as elsewhere. Blandina of Lyon became one of the first ‘celebrated’ martyrs of the region, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. While the Romans were tolerant of the religious practices of subject peoples generally, Christianity, with its inwardness, its intransigence and its rejection of eclecticism and syncretism, posed more problems than others. Nevertheless, the persecution of Christians was not by any means as widespread as some later commentators have asserted. The treatment of Christians largely depended on the whims of particular emperors, local tensions and character clashes, and the waxing and waning sense of ‘internal threat’.

Things changed, of course, with the Christianisation of the empire, and the politicisation of the church. One of the first powerful rulers of the region known to us, the brutal Merovingian king Clovis (r.481-511) started out pagan, married a Christian, converted and was baptised at Rheims by the leading bishop. By this time it had already become clear that the secular and the ‘spiritual’ powers needed each other’s support. In fact the network of bishops encouraged by Clovis and other leaders helped to unify the Franks and the Celtic Gauls under a Latinised administrative system, which was a useful adjunct to highly unstable hereditary monarchies. The successors of Clovis squandered his legacy and the secular power eventually fell to a new line, culminating in the reign of Charlemagne, whose association with Pope Leo III helped to bolster his own legitimacy and the power of the papacy. In 799 Leo fled from Rome to the court of Charlemagne, his life in danger from a gang of Roman nobles. Charlemagne chose to support Leo (though he didn’t think much of him), and entered Rome to ensure his reinstatement. In return, Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor. It was the most spectacular example up to that time of the effectiveness of church-state collaboration, and it jump-started the soi-disant Holy Roman Empire, a somewhat vague institution that languished on until 1806.

Naturally the Carolingian dynasty faded, and the French nobility was weakened by its lengthy adventures in the crusades, and it wasn’t till the 12th century that a new dynasty, the Capetians, was able to dominate the region. Again, alliance with the church proved essential to the maintenance of power, not only through administration and productive associations with key figures such as the Abbé Suger, but in terms of ritual and display, including the tradition of a sacramental coronation in Rheims.

Of course, tensions between Rome and the French church were bound to arise, and when the Pope tried to interfere with the ecclesiastical decisions of the French king, or vice versa, this would often lead to real blood-letting, with fragile alliances, betrayals and pointless heroics in a political world based on power and gloire. The notoriously 13th century ascetic Louis IX, aka ‘Saint Louis’, actually moved the French monarchy away from the Vatican, anticipating the later idea of divine right direct from Mr Supernatural. He also strengthened the Roman Law system and heavily patronised the arts, and he and his successors presided over a greater nationalisation of religious ideas and practice, as well as the building of many of the great French cathedrals that still bedazzle tourists. Paris became the centre for theological discourse – the only intellectual game in town – with the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard doing their utmost, this side of heresy, to remake the Old Testament god into the BOOB (benevolent omnipotent omniscient being) we’ve come to know and scratch our heads over.

With the printing press in the fifteenth century came a new challenge to Catholic hegemony, leading to the Reformation, as literature and ideas became more widely disseminated, and the practises of the church came under greater scrutiny. The precursor to full-blown protestantism was a kind of religious humanism, associated with such figures as Erasmus of Rotterdam and England’s Thomas More. Jean Calvin, a theology student at the Sorbonne, was influenced by humanist methods of direct connection and interpretation of Biblical texts, and his conclusions regarding faith and predestination naturally caused alarm in some circles. The prominent French Renaissance king, François I, who was at first well-disposed towards the new intellectual trends, finally found them personally threatening, and the persecution of protestants began, and were further stepped up by his less amiable successor, Henry II. Over the next century France was one of the major theatres of the wars of religion, culminating in the Thirty Years War. The only bright period was the reign of Henry IV (1589-1610), a protestant who pragmatically converted to Catholicism in order to ascend the throne. Much to the disgust of Pope Clement VIII, he issued the famous Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting substantial rights to the Huguenots (Calvinist protestants) while affirming Catholicism as the ‘real religion’. Remarkably liberal for its time, it lasted for less than a century, being revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. The revocation led to an exodus of protestants, and tensions with neighbouring protestant countries (and when I say ‘tensions’, I don’t mean in the modern sense of babble about ‘shirt-fronting’ national leaders, but battles, sieges, massacres and the like – the standard European stuff of those centuries).

The enormous privileges granted to the clergy and the nobility under the ancien regime were a decisive factor in bringing about the French Revolution of 1789. Various failed attempts were made to get these elites to pay taxes or make concessions, but they of course refused, suicidally as it turned out. The revolutionaries declared null and void the King’s divine right to rule, and issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the Supreme Being was redefined in non-denominational terms. The clergy were made to swear an oath of allegiance to the new Constitution, which most of the higher clergy refused to do. The revolutionaries’ insistence on this measure caused both domestic and European unrest. Pope Pius VI condemned the revolution in 1791, but the French got their own back when their troops expelled him from the Papal States in 1798. The next Pope, Pius VII, was in continual conflict with Napoleon. The 1801 Concordat between the two was used by Napoleon to gain the support of traditional Catholics, as it granted rights to the clergy that had been taken away from them by the National Assembly, but it was heavily tilted towards the French state and away from the Papacy. The Concordat declared that Catholicism was ‘the religion of the great majority of the French’, but not the state religion (as it had been before the revolution), thus preserving religious freedom.

Finally, the Concordat was largely abrogated by the 1905 French law on the separation of the churches and the state, which clearly established state secularism (which had also been declared by the Paris Commune of 1871, but it didn’t last). According to Wikipedia:

The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law is seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité. The French Constitution of 1958 states “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion”. However, France’s republican government had long been strongly anti-clerical. The Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905, subsequent to prior expulsion of many religious orders, declared most Catholic church buildings property of the state (cathedrals) communes (existing village churches), and led to the closing of most Church schools.

France’s 1905 law is still controversial, and it didn’t prevent governments from spending taxpayer funds on Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran and religious Jewish building projects well into the 2oth century. However, the impact on the Catholic church was most substantial, though reconciliation processes between successive French governments and the Vatican have since eased the pain.

This has been a blustering tour through the complex religious history of France, another far from unified nation, with complex regional histories and dynamics. My hat-tip is to Cecil Jenkins’ Brief History of France for much of the detail. It has brought me up to speed on far more than France’s religious skirmishes; it has given me a basis for understanding something more of that country’s queer and unique dirigiste economy and social history.

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2014 at 6:35 am