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patriarchy, identity politics and immigration – a few reflections

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Germany. Muslim migrants  being threatening. Note the female presence.

Germany. Muslim migrants being threatening. Note the female presence.


A conversation between ‘apocalypse man’ Sam Harris and Gad Saad (evolutionary psychologist and producer of a Youtube channel critiquing inter alia various shibboleths of the left), together with some overheard comments at my workplace, as well as other promptings, has led me to consider writing about some major issues confronting our increasingly secular society and it maintenance…

As everyone  knows, in Australia as in other western countries, the influx of refugees from such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively small though it has been, has ignited a response of what has been called ‘Islamophobia’ amongst a certain sector of the public. This is of course connected to a more generalised xenophobia and nationalism. My own response to all this has been a fairly unconcerned dismissiveness, though coloured by a definite distaste for such items as the niqab, and such customs as the strict segregation of males and females, which I’ve long been exposed to as a teacher of English to Arabic-speaking families. Insofar as I gave it thought, I tended to believe that the children of these immigrants would become more drawn to western secularism and everything would be more or less hunky dory. But the more I read, listen and observe, the less sanguine I’ve become about all that. We may need to defend secularism more robustly in the future.

I think it’s true, though dangerous, to say that the greatest threat to secularism today is Islam. Previously, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to admit this, even to myself – even though it’s been articulated clearly enough by concerned thinkers I admire, such as Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So now it’s time to face the issue more resolutely and to think about solutions.

Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In my workplace as a TESOL educator, dealing with mostly Chinese students, together with a substantial proportion of Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, I have a colleague who is an Israeli-born Muslim. She doesn’t wear any kind of head-dress or make any outward display to show that she believes in Islam, she is very professional and hard-working, and she’s very well-liked by and supportive of  her colleagues. In fact, in the first few months of working there, having heard that she was born in Israel, I assumed naturally enough that she was Jewish. Only later did I learn that her native language was Arabic, and even then I wasn’t sure whether she was a practising Muslim. In fact apostate Muslims are rare, but as a sometime member of atheist and humanist groups I do encounter them, and this has probably skewed my views on the possibility of abandoning Islam for those born into it. In any case, three experiences in recent months have brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with even the most apparently liberal Muslims on issues which, for virtually all secular liberals, are no-brainers. First, during a brief staff-room discussion of the marriage equality plebiscite being mooted here in Australia, she quietly stated that ‘we think homosexuality is wrong’. Second, on a video I watched in which she was assessing a seminar on political violence given by a student, she quietly, and very briefly, stated her doubts about the truth of the holocaust (it’s unlikely that her students had the language skills to comprehend her comment). Third, in another staff room discussion, she stated that ‘we don’t believe in evolution’. So herein lies the problem. It is, and I think plenty of research bears this out, a standard view of even the most liberal Muslims, that homosexuality should not be allowed, that natural selection is false and shouldn’t be taught, and that Jews are liars, or worse, and can’t be trusted.

These views are a part of identity politics, hence the regular use of ‘we’ in their delivery. Intelligent though my colleague is, I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to explain the mechanism of natural selection from random variation that’s the basis of our understanding of life on earth, nor would she be able to give a detailed explanation of how the holocaust ‘myth’ became widespread, or of why homosexuality is so wrong. My guess is that her very being, as part of a rigid collective consciousness, would be threatened if she disavowed these beliefs, and it’s the collective consciousness of Islam that’s my main concern here. Of course this consciousness isn’t absolute, because if it were there would be no apostates and no possibility of apostasy. However, it’s also very powerful and compelling, because if it wasn’t the opprobrium and the violence meted out to apostates wouldn’t be so extreme. So the situation in the Muslim world bears similarities to that of the Christian world in Europe before sceptical individuals such as Cristovao Ferreira, Jean Meslier and Julien de La Mettrie began to proliferate in the eighteenth century – a situation that prevailed for over a thousand years. However, there are important differences between contemporary Muslim collective consciousness and the Christian variety that’s now fast disappearing in Europe. The most important difference, of course, is that European Christendom wasn’t faced with the external pressure of sophisticated societies on its borders, demanding trade deals and seeking to impose universal, largely secular values more or less in exchange. So today there is very much a clash of cultures, though probably not as described in various books on the subject (none of which I’ve read). It’s quite possible, though by no means certain, that this clash, and the greater fluidity of human movement in the 21st century, will speed up the process of change, of a Muslim enlightenment, in coming decades, but there seems little sign of that at present.

So what with Muslim identity politics and no Muslim enlightenment on the horizon, issues arise with respect to immigration, multiculturalism and the like. And I have to say I’m very much torn on this issue. On the one hand I’m disgusted by our former PM Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Syrian refugees as largely economic migrants who need to be turned back if their lives are not in immediate danger, despite the worse than horrendous conditions they suffer under. On the other hand I recognise the difficulty and the danger of accepting people who have been living on a diet of violence and hatred for decades into a peaceful country. The evidence is clear that though the majority of these refugees want nothing more than to find a peaceful place to restart their lives, there will be a certain percentage that bring their grievances with them, and most disturbingly their long-held grievances against western values.

So this is one of the biggest problems facing western society currently. As I’ve said, I’ve tended to minimise the problem in my own mind up till now. After all, Muslims make up only about 2.5% of the Australian population and haven’t caused too many problems as yet (with apologies to the families of Tory Johnson, Katrina Dawson and Curtis Cheng), and my own experience of Muslim residents and students here, which has been quite considerable of late, has been almost entirely positive. However, events in Europe and the USA in recent years give cause for grave concern, as have statistics relating to the growth of Islam worldwide. While projections about the growth of Islam in the the future are never going to be entirely reliable, being based on a host of assumptions, it’s pretty clear that it’s growing faster than Christianity or any other major religion. This has more to do with fertility rates than any other factor, but the fact that it’s generally dangerous to abandon the Muslim faith doesn’t help much.

At the moment, this is not an Australian problem, even though we have a rise in thuggish xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it’s clear that if the Muslim population continues to rise, and screening of extremists isn’t adequate, there will be incidents (to use a euphemism), and reactions to incidents, which will adversely affect our civil society. But of course things have changed already in this ‘distant’ western society. When I was growing up (and at 60 I’m no spring chicken) there were no Muslims whatever in our very Anglo working class community – Italian market gardeners were our version of exoticism. Now, in my workplace, we have to provide ‘multi-faith’ (but actually Muslim) prayer rooms and deal with the guardians of (rare in comparison to male) female Arabic students who refuse to shake hands with our course co-ordinator who happens to be female. This is a far more challenging and personally offensive situation than anything I’ve experienced before, as someone brought up on and profoundly influenced by seventies feminism, and part of the challenge is having to counter absurd arguments by members of what has been termed the ‘regressive left’ who have actually suggested, in discussion with me, that western women are coerced into wearing bikinis and short dresses in much the same way as Muslim women are coerced into burqas and niqabs.

Anyway, now that I’ve ‘come out’ on this major issue, I plan to deal with it further in future posts. I want to look at the European situation as an object lesson for Australia, because what I’ve been learning about it is quite alarming. I’m also keen to connect what I’ve been learning about all this – the Saudi guardianship system and the macho jihadist culture – to patriarchy and its obvious deficits. I still think this is the area in which Islam can be most constructively critiqued, with a view to reform.

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2016 at 9:34 pm

a statement of intent: blogging on patriarchy

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Okay I’ve recently become a bit depressed that my blog is heading south, comme on dit, being read by nobody, due largely to my personality. A recent SBS program on the celebrated Dunedin longitudinal study of human behaviour and personality told us that there were five essential personality types. Three were considered ‘normal’, and they were the well-adjusted (40% of the population) the confident (28%), and the reserved (15%). In case you can’t add, this makes up some 83% of the population. The other 17% can be divided into two rather more dysfunctional types, the under-controlled (10%) and the inhibited (7%). You’re more than welcome to be healthily skeptical of these categories, but I’m prepared to take them as granted.

I’m not sure if I’m fully in the reserved category or the inhibited one, but I’m quite certain that most of the problems or failings of my life have been due to inhibition. For example, I live alone, have very few friends and no family connections and I visit and am visited by nobody. I have no sex life but a strong sex drive – make of that what you will – and I like other people very much and have many heroes and heroines, and I believe strongly that humans have gotten where they are through communication and collaboration. We’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. I love children and would love to have been a father…

Enough, I hope you get the picture. What’s interesting is that, in accord with Dunedin’s personality types, my character seems to have been fixed in early childhood, which I spent largely enjoying my own company, but also being fascinated by the world, soliloquising on it at delightful length. And sometimes, as I grew older, falling to despair, weeping at night over a projected future of loveless isolation. Oh dear.

So what does this mean for my blog? Writing a blog that’s sent out into the public domain is surely not an inhibited act, and craving attention for it is arguably not what a reserved person does. It’s a puzzlement. In any case, I will try harder to expand my readership by writing shorter pieces and narrowing my focus. I’ve decided, for the time being at least, to confine my attention to a subject I’ve long been bothered by: patriarchy. I want to critique it, to analyse it, to examine what the sciences say about it, to shine lights on every aspect of this, to my mind, benighted way of thinking and being-in-the-world. I’ll take a look at bonobos, the Catholic Church, homophobia, the effects of religion and culture, male and female neurophysiology, history, sex, workplaces, business, politics, whatever I can relate to the main subject, which surely will provide me with a rich, open field. And I’ll try, really try to communicate with other bloggers and commentators on the subject. Maybe I’ll become just a little less reserved before it’s too late. It’ll be a cheaper way of getting myself out of a rut than visiting a psychiatrist, of whom I would be healthily if self-servingly skeptical.

Written by stewart henderson

August 21, 2016 at 5:01 pm

More impressions of Budapest, mainly

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Matthius church, Buda. Supposedly first associated with 'Saint Stephen', Hungary's first Christian king, in the early 11th century, it was largely built in the late 14th century and much-restored in the 19th. Its style is over-the-top late gothic

Matthius church, Buda. Supposedly first associated with ‘Saint Stephen’, Hungary’s first Christian king, in the early 11th century, it was largely built in the late 14th century and much-restored in the 19th. Its style is over-the-top late gothic – sort of steampunk sans irony

Once we’d checked in, we didn’t much want to leave the air-conditioned comfort for the cold and damp, so we settled in at the hotel bar for a bit. I’d decided to over-dress to cheer myself up – fancy tie and colourful waistcoat, etc – so this elicited discomforting looks from the definitely not over-dressed bar people, and even smirks and laughter from passers-by when we decided to brave the weather and try out an ATM down the road. When a particularly attractive damosel made some obviously mocking remark about me to her beau I was stung into trying out a charming French greeting, but she ignored me. Our ATM venture was also unsuccesful, it would only spit out Magyar currency, aka forints. Still I was beginning to warm to the city, as I noticed a lot of attractive, interesting-looking young people on the streets, all dressed mostly in black. This was probably because, as I discovered next day, the city’s principal university was very close by.

The next day was slightly warmer and drier, and we went for a walk to the nearby museum, an absolutely massive building which was closed, and only open a few days a week – a bad sign I thought. The university precinct, though, gave me the sense of lively Enlightenment that all such areas do. We took some lunch in a pub across from the hotel, after which I took a stroll down to the nearby Danube, where I discovered a lively cafe hub, just one street back from the river, jammed between the usual tall, tightly-packed examples of Euro-impressive architecture. By which time I’d decided I really liked Budapest, but I’m probably more easily pleased than most.

There were a few touristy/traveller problems though. The flight had affected my normally regular sleep pattern, and two weeks into the holiday I still haven’t regained any sleep normalcy (I’m writing this at 3am in Amsterdam), and my cash-flow concerns weren’t alleviated by another ATM failure. This time I’d pre-located nearby a so-called ‘Euro-ATM’ via GPS on my phone but when I got there I couldn’t make any sense whatsoever of its instructions, and I ended up withdrawing a massive number of forints – something like 400,000 of the buggers – thinking I’d receive euros. This is no doubt the closest I’ve come to being a demi-millionaire in my life, but I felt more like a bloody idiot, with a pocket stuffed with a wad of currency that would be practically useless to me within 24 hours. My stress about this caused my first contretemps with my TC, who decided to shop for something warm to wear, in consideration of the somewhat unexpected chilliness, and so left me waiting longtemps outside stanping my feet and sensing the beginnings of a cough and a ‘bubbly dose’, when all I wanted to do was get to a bank that would turn my unearned forints into a maximum of euros. So after an all-too-familiar nasty spit-spat I stamped off to a bank. I’d been warned off having dealings with money exchangers, whose shingles were all over the place, because they apparently charge extortionate commissions, but in the bank I was advised by a friendly young teller in perfect English to use a money-changer down the road who charged no commission and whose rates were much better than the bank’s. This sounded all very helpful and civilised and I followed the young man’s directions precisely and with alacrity until I came to a kind of hole-in-the-wall booth advertising no commission and told my tale to a solemn-looking university type who very carefully counted out my great bundle of forints, typed a formula into a calculator and asked me silently to approve the result, some 800-odd euros, which I could only pretend to know was correct. But I really did feel enormous gratitude that these people seemed to be on my side, if that’s not too self-indulgent a term. Shortly after leaving the hole-in-the-wall with great relief, I stopped as my heart skipped a beat – should I have ‘tipped’ the fellow for his good sevices? I must say I can’t stand the stress and strain that tipping and haggling and such things causes. I’m no good at either, and I’m sure it’s not just a matter of inexperience. It’s just not a fair system – I would rather that people charged plainly and were paid appropriately, so I don’t have to fret about it…

Anyhow, I was happily cashed-up and ready to start the cruise….

Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2016 at 11:55 am

Good Friday? We object..

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profound spirituality lives on

profound spirituality lives on

Canto: I’m sitting here thinking I’d like to take a ride to the beach and then breakfast at a seaside caf but I can’t because it’s ‘good Friday’ and every such outlet in this state is shut down.

Jacinta: Right, and so what’s so good about Good Friday? I’ve heard tell it’s good for us to have a complete day off from shopping or having paid servants wait on us – a bit like having a day off from using electricity or motorised transport or – imagine it – a whole day in which smartphones couldn’t be used. We would somehow be better human beings, more appreciative of the first-world splendour we bask in, if we experienced the horrendous suffering of being deprived of it for a day.

Canto: Well I’ve had thoughts of that kind in the past, but I’d rather be up-front and call it first-world-free day or some such, because we both know good friday isn’t about deprivation of our favourite indulgences, or, if it is, that deprivation is supposed to remind us that on a ‘good day’ around 2000 years ago someone was crucified. A horrible death but not so horrible in this case because this particular guy was an immortal being in disguise who is now still alive and all around us and loves us terribly much. So it’s all good.

Jacinta: Yeah…right… sooo…

Canto: Okay the reason they say it’s good is because this immortal being died, or pretended to, or went through enormous suffering, because this allowed us to be saved.

Jacinta: Ahh right… saved… saved… ummm

Canto: Look Jass … I know this seems confusing to you but if you take a thorough-going theology course, and maintain a deeply spiritual lifestyle for the next several years you might be offered a glimmer of the revelation enveloped in this outwardly mysterious form of knowing-as-being.

Jacinta: Ohhh… shit… but all I really wanted was a caffe latte..

Canto: Okay well the reason you won’t get your latte today is because a certain dwindling section of our society believes this story of Jesus on the cross is literally true, or symbolically true or true in some deep sense which is beyond our shallow faithlessness, and this section of our society, though now a shadow of its former all-powerful self, once had complete control of our polity and economy and thus dictated what holidays we should have and why. And since we really like to have holidays and it would be a pain in the national arse to rename or reconfigure them, the ship of state being very difficult to shift from its course and all that, we’re stuck with good friday until the dwindling near-minority dwindles to such a level that it becomes a national embarrassment that we’re still pretending to respect such inconcinnities.

Jacinta: Well I saw on the morning news that the Sydney fish market’s open today.. wherever that is..

Canto: I think it’s in Sydney.

Jacinta: … but nothing’s open in dear old Adelaide, the shitty of churches. I don’t think we should just sit back and accept this. Why aren’t people protesting?

Canto: Okay, yes, let’s protest. What do you suggest?

Jacinta: Well, ummm, we could write to our local MP?

Canto: Yes, that would turn the ship of state around quick smart.

Jacinta: How about a petition?

Canto: Now that’s original. We could put it out over the net through or some such, and sit back and watch the overflow of community outrage…

Jacinta: Well the fact is, as you say, we love our holidays, so many people are prepared to be completely hypocritical about the reason for the season, even to the point of accepting the inconvenience of one complete shut-down day…

Canto: So that’s the end of our protest?

Jacinta: Pretty much. Join me for a nice breakfast out somewhere tomorrow morning?

Canto: You’re on.


Written by stewart henderson

March 25, 2016 at 1:24 pm

why is evolution true? (if it is): part two, the problem of macroevolution

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So, in Darwin’s day, there was a clear problem. Fossilised bones turning up everywhere, sometimes of gigantic creatures unlike anything on earth, sometimes of creatures very like those then living but not quite the same – in any case all indicating change, change, change. And there were many other oddities, some of them observed by Darwin himself on his Beagle voyage. Marine fossils embedded in landscapes way above sea level. Darwin had a great interest in geology, courtesy of Charles Lyell, whose landmark work, Principles of Geology, he carried with him on his great voyage. He was very interested in Lyell’s view, derived from Hutton, that landscapes changed slowly, with mountains rising from the sea, over periods of time much greater than the biblical account. So imagine his mind, full of Lyell’s speculations, when on March 4 1835 he was exploring the cliffs above Talcuhano Harbour, near Concepcion in Chile, shortly after the devastating earthquake, and found maases of seashells embedded in the rock. The Andes had risen from the sea, surely! Yet he might well have been in two minds – slow change, yes, perhaps, but the earthquake had also changed the physical landscape in an instant, bringing rocks dripping and oozing with marine life up several feet above the sea surface…

Meanwhile, dinosaurs. Of course the bones of these critters have been unearthed for millenia, but it was only in the early nineteenth century that they were treated scientifically. It was Richard Owen, later to become Darwin’s bête noir, who coined the term in 1842 (it’s from the Greek, roughly meaning ‘terrible lizard’ though dinos weren’t lizards, and they weren’t all terrible, or terribly large). These huge beasts (dinos come in all sizes, but large bones are more easily preserved than small ones, giving a false picture, and of course bigness grabs the public imagination) had clearly disappeared, but when? Why? How long ago? It all made the question of the earth’s actual age and history rather more urgent.

Darwin, back in England after a richly stimulating voyage in which he’d collected and ruminated over a vast number of exotic species, was exercised by a number of problems. Why did whole species disappear? Surely this had some connection with changes of landscape and habitat? He’d been making observations with regard to predators and prey, how species depended on other species, how individuals competed for mates. It seems that, unlike Wallace who came upon the insight of natural selection more or less in one fell swoop years later, Darwin was piecing things together painfully slowly, with hesitation, scepticism and uncertainty, but also with a dogged accumulation of evidence, so that when, finally, impelled by the famous letter from Wallace in the late 1850s to express his views, he was able to do so fulsomely, in spite of a lack of writerly ability. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The theory of natural selection is the most spectacularly successful and productive theory in biology, and is in fact its foundation stone. It has been reinforced by all that has been discovered since, especially in genetics and microbiology, fields that didn’t exist in Darwin’s time. The basis of the theory is quite simple, though it has been much misrepresented. Creatures reproduce, and generally the offspring are pretty well identical to the parents, but sometimes mutations occur. The offspring is in some way different. Usually the difference is ‘negative’, disadvantaging the offspring. The offspring is thus unable to reproduce and its line dies out. Sometimes the difference is ‘neutral’ and the line continues to reproduce, until or unless natural (environmental) conditions change and that line becomes either positive or negative within the context of those conditions. In other words it thrives compared to others or it dies out. Sometimes the difference is immediately positive, and this line outcompetes the others. The variation is random, but the natural environment ‘selects’ the best fit – the birds with the best beak for pecking out food; the worms with the best chemistry for thriving in a particular soil; in more recent times, the bacteria that can best resist the antibiotics we throw at them.

So the theory of natural selection describes incremental, gradual change. Its effect upon species is more difficult to explain, and it’s with this that creationists like to play, raising lots of dust and fog with respect to the species concept.

So what exactly is a species? The first more or less universally accepted classification of living things into groups was that of Linnaeus in his Systema naturae of 1735. It was a thoroughgoing system, from kingdom at the top, ranging down through phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. It’s still used today, of course, with various additions intercalated with these layers, but in the 20th century a new taxonomic system called cladistics, based on a more scientific understanding of descent from common ancestry, and so incorporating the new science of genetics, has won increasing favour.

One of the main reasons for this new development is that the term ‘species’ has historically been  frustratingly vague. Originally it was based on morphological characteristics – in other words, visible similarities. Nowadays, though, with the emergence of population genetics and genomics, we can be more rigorous about species and speciation. Basically, a species becomes separated from another when it no longer breeds with that other. More often than not, this is due to geographic separation. Early on in the separation interbreeding is still possible, but over time, with continued lack of opportunity, the two groups become increasingly distinct and unlike (and one or both groups may go extinct). This branching has of course occurred oodles of times, creating an evolutionary bush, each twig of which can be traced back to the original stem.

So far, so clear, I hope. So where do the creationist terms micro-evolution and macro-evolution come in? Well, off the top of my head, I think that, since creationists really really dislike the theory of natural selection as presented by Darwin, they have to account for obvious changes somehow without abandoning divine creation, especially of humans, as soul-blessed, dominion-holding, image-of-god types. So, they distinguish micro-evolution, changes within species (e.g. different breeds of dogs) from macro-evolution, transformations from one species to another, which they claim doesn’t exist. Presumably they think that every species was specially created by their god, though why he should have created so many and rendered the vast majority of them extinct before humans even came on the scene is a mystery. This points up a major problem for those who believe in directed evolution as well as creationism.

Okay, to be clear, micro-evolution and macro-evolution aren’t terms invented by creationists, though they’ve taken to them like babies to their mothers’ milk. The terms were first used by evolutionary biologists early in the 20th century to characterise not different processes but different scales of evolution. Micro-evolution plus time (in which minute changes accumulate) equals macro-evolution. Creationists, then, are reduced to claiming that, because we don’t ‘see’ speciation, it doesn’t exist. Presumably they can say the same for the big bang and black holes, but we can detect such objects and events through increasingly precise instrumentation, and we can pretty well map the relations between species, and the branchings-off, by examining genomes. They tell us, for example, that we share an ancestor with our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos, dating back between 5 and 7 million years ago. We are equally related to these two species because they branched off from each other later, between one and a half and two million years ago. Richard Dawkins, in his monumental work The Ancestors’ Tale, attempted to trace these nodes of connections between the ancestors of humans and other species, back to the first life forms. There are gaps in our knowledge of course, but they’re being filled in on an almost daily basis.

As Dawkins points out in another of his books, River out of Eden, the DNA ‘revolution’ that got underway as a result of Watson and Crick’s unravelling of the molecular structure of the gene, is a digital revolution. The genetic code is quaternary, with four nucleotide elements – adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine which can be combined in specific ways. Therefore the difference in the coding for different proteins, leading on the large scale to all the variation we see, can be worked out mathematically. This allows us to define more precisely our cousinship to other species – which are the more distant cousins, horses or pigs? Or, how closely connected are bees and butterflies? We can illustrate these relations using cladograms:



The technology we now have at our disposal allows us to map whole genomes increasingly cheaply and efficiently, and so we’re finding some surprising relationships. For example, recent DNA analysis has revealed that falcons, previously thought for fairly obvious reasons to be closely related to other birds of prey such as eagles, are in fact more closely related to parrots, songbirds and passerines such as the humble sparrow – a significant shift in taxonomic placement.

The obvious connections between species, and the fact that we can draw the evolutionary bush with increasing confidence, makes a mockery of creationist claims against natural selection, which not only explains speciation but also extinction. We may not know exactly why the neanderthals, or the trilobites, or the Australian megafauna died out, but natural selection points us in the right direction for answers – climate change, food scarcity and the introduction of new predators into the environment being the obvious candidates. The creationist, on the other hand needs to answer the question – why would their god keep creating these species, endlessly, only to have them snuffed out? No answers about the opacity of their god’s intentions are acceptable. And of course that’s far from being the only question they can’t answer.

Written by stewart henderson

June 13, 2015 at 5:14 pm

the fall – when curiosity was shameful, and miracles abounded

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the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

I’ve been reading some medieval literature recently, and I’d like to make a brief comparison here between the writings of Benedict of Nursia (c480-547) and Pope Greg the Great (reigned from 589 to 604), and the Roman writers of a few centuries before, such as Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Plutarch. It’s maybe a bit unfair as Greg and Ben perhaps weren’t typical writers of the sixth century, I’m hardly medievalist enough to say, but still they capture for me the tragedy of the soi-disant Dark Ages for the development of thought and ideas. I’ll be quoting from the medieval writers, but only referring to the Romans – you’ll just have to take my word for it about their smarts.

Benedict of Nursia is probably better known as Saint Benedict, but I don’t like that appellation – not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because nobody does, as in order to become a saint it must’ve been ‘proven’ that you performed miracles, and such silliness shouldn’t be encouraged. More importantly, this nominatively determined method of severing such individuals from common humanity does us all a disservice. Anyway, Benedict was the founder of 12 monasteries or communities in Italy, and he wrote rules for them which were later adopted in other regions to form the basis of the Benedictine system of monks – though there was never really a strict Benedictine order (monks who live communally under a set of rules are called cenobites). I’ve just read these rules, followed by Pope Gregory’s  hagiography of Benedict, and it gives me a perspective on the closing of the European mind – if that’s not too grandiose a term – associated with the Dark Ages.

Benedict is praised for what Wikipedia calls the ‘balance, moderation and reasonableness’ of his rules, which facilitated their adoption by many European monasteries. However, moderation is a relative term, and as a rabid anti-authoritarian I probably chafe more than most under imposed rules. Still, I reckon most independent-minded modern westerners would find Benedict’s rules deadeningly stifling, and if they were considered moderate for the time, I’d hate to think about the more immoderate rules that the pious were forced to submit to. But judge for yourself.

Benedict states at the outset that ‘we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord’. This isn’t of course a school in the modern sense, it’s more like certain types of Madrassa, in which nothing outside of sacred texts is studied. The school or institute is to be presided over by an Abbot, chosen for his personal qualities, including self-discipline, firmness, compassion and insight into the ways of the Lord. Recalcitrant souls need to be coaxed or reproved into the narrow path. However,

… bold, proud, hard and disobedient characters he should curb at the very beginning of their ill-doing by stripes and other bodily punishments, knowing that it is written, ‘The fool is not corrected with words’, and again, ‘Beat your son with the rod and you will deliver his soul from death’.

I suppose this isn’t too much worse than a lot of army-style biffo, as depicted in Full Metal Jacket and the like, but there’s more, and monasticism was a life commitment. Benedict goes on a lot about humility and seriousness – he frowns upon laughter. He also insists, ominously, on narrowness, for ‘strait is the gate and narrow is the way’ to salvation, as we all know. Clearly the lives of these life-long penitents are going to be highly circumscribed. Patience, endurance, humility and obedience are the watchwords.

The monks’ days are rigidly ordered. Prayers are to be offered up 7 times a day (more often than in Islam, even) because, according to Benedict, the Prophet says ‘seven times in the day I have rendered praise to you’. Who this prophet was I can’t ascertain, and there’s no such quote in the Bible, though Isaiah and Luke both display a fondness for the number. In any case, Benedict gives instructions about the number and type of psalms to be sung at the Morning Office, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Prayers are to be ‘short and pure’, in compliance with the spirit of silence that should inhabit, not to say inhibit, the school. One of the longest chapters is ‘On Humility’, in which Benedict defines 12 different degrees of humility, as the monk becomes more and more cleansed of vice and sin:

The tenth degree of humility is that he be not ready and quick to laugh, for it is written, ‘The fool lifts up his voice in laughter’.

The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. It is written, ‘A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’

Again, Benedict doesn’t tells us where these dubious claims are written, but they don’t seem to come from the Bible. In any case, you get the idea, the fantasy that suppression of all spontaneity and originality leads through the narrow gate unto heaven.

Of course, the microcosm of the monastery doesn’t necessarily reflect the macrocosm of medieval Europe, but in a world of more or less homogenous Christian belief many of these ‘ideals’ would have been prominent. Not that the previous Roman world was that much better, as far as the nurturing of curiosity and intellectual inquiry was concerned. Roman society was also quite rigid in its structure, and philosophically, neither the Stoics nor the Epicureans thought in terms of intellectual progress. But the near-obsessive stifling of curiosity, the obsession with an obedient, humble, slavish attitude before an all-knowing master-god, that was very much a product of the Christianising of the Empire and ultimately of all Europe. The kind of reflective history-writing and philosophising found in the work of Tacitus, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, dealing with human psychology and conduct in its own right, without reference to divine expectations, all but disappeared for centuries.

Interestingly, along with the fashion for slavishness came a flourishing of credulity. Pope Gregory the Great’s bio of Benedict teems with his miracles and fulfilled prophecies, reminding us that the age of Jesus wasn’t the dimmest for unbelievable beliefs, though it may have sparked the fashion for them. There’s virtually a miracle on every page, so I’ll quote here one of the first, from when he was a youth, having abandoned his studies to serve his Master, to give you a taste:

When Benedict abandoned his studies to go into solitude, he was accompanied by his nurse, who loved him dearly. As they were passing through Affile, a number of devout men invited them to stay there and provided them with lodging near the Church of St Peter. One day, after asking her neighbours to lend her a tray for cleaning wheat, the nurse happened to leave it on the edge of the table and when she came back she found it had slipped off and broken in two. The poor woman burst into tears, she had just borrowed this tray and now it was ruined. Benedict, who had always been a devout and thoughtful boy, felt sorry for his nurse when he saw her weeping. Quietly picking up both the pieces, he knelt down by himself and prayed earnestly to God, even to the point of tears. No sooner had he finished his prayer than he noticed that the two pieces were joined together, without even a mark to show where the tray had been broken. Hurrying back at once, he cheerfully reassured his nurse and handed her the tray in perfect condition.

Of course, this little tale is partly designed to show Benedict’s kindness and attentiveness in small matters, and perhaps that’s the best take-home message, but not all the miracles are so nice, and some display the wish-fulfilling fantasy of bringing down enemies. The point, though, is that these miracles are disseminated by the highest religious authorities in Europe, so that it would amount to sacrilege to deny them. Interestingly, when I was nine years old, my mother bought me a collection of books called ‘Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories’ – about ten books each with about ten stories in them, and every one told of a miracle much like this one (and to be fair to my mother, she hadn’t vetted them first and wasn’t aware that they were Christian propaganda). People had fallen on hard times or had suffered an accident, they prayed to God, their fortunes were miraculously reversed. They were very formulaic stories, and I steamed with annoyance on reading them, but it’s fascinating to find a template for that kind of writing from nearly 1400 years before. How the world has changed and how some aspects of it remain.

What is interesting for me, though, is the connection between credulity and authority that marks the Dark Ages. As a youngster I was free to, and took delight in, spurning the ‘authority’ of Uncle Arthur and his benevolent miracles. I’m a creature of my era and social milieu, as we all are, but there are many social milieux in our world. I’ve just seen a TV clip about the ‘fight of the century’ between one Floyd Mayweather and the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. I’m not much into boxing these days (I was a keen follower of the sport in my youth), but I hear this fight is being billed as goodie v baddie, because Mayweather is a convicted wife-beater and apparently something of a self-advertising loudmouth whereas Pacquiao is a member of parliament, charity worker and other respectable things. However, when I just looked at the screen I saw Pacquaio wearing a t-shirt with ‘Jesus is my Lord’ or some such thing emblazoned on it, and I felt a spurt of disgust. I have a visceral reaction to the slavishness and submission of the two most common religions on the planet. The old ‘pagan’ religions certainly engaged in seasonal placatory gestures but they didn’t practice or preach eternal submission to their invisible and undetectable masters. And not only are we supposed to accept our enslavement, but to exalt in our specialness. It’s the most horrible kind of unreality, to me. So there’s still plenty of darkness to deal with, or to avoid. Let’s remember Goethe’s reputed last words – more light.

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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What Australia needs


I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.