Blasphemy laws; here and there.

Blasphemy laws; here and there.

The Irish public are voting in their referendum today as to whether they will jettison their ancient blasphemy law from their constitution. This is found in Article 40 which reads :-

“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

This situation did receive degree of  public attention when attempts were made to use the law  against Stephen Fry on 2017; following his making of blasphemous statement in a television interview.  His case was dropped and thrown out as have all other attempts to use the law in recent times. Indeed it is a largely recognised that this is an “obsolete law“, a view which is also held by the Irish Catholic Bishops conference who are, as a consequence, not opposing its abolition. It will be welcome to see the back of this anachronism, a relic from the days that every constitution used to include reference to God and Faith.

Blasphemy laws are simply an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. They do not protect people of any faith, they simply protect those with power. They are a sign of the wedding of state and church and a mechanism to bolster the influence of both of these institutions. They protect some from offense or distress by removing the rights of others to freedom of expression.

People with religious faith do not require blasphemy laws. It is in the nature of faith that it persists despite what others may say, it persists in the face of argument. It is this steadfastness which makes me admire so many of those people of faith, who have soldiered on against apparently insurmountable odds, because their faith directed them to do what they knew to be right. (Think of the Quakers’ opposition to wars or the Abolitionists in the struggle against slavery). Indeed blasphemy laws are largely a risk to people of faith in the many cases when their faith is not shared by the current state. This is the horrific situation in which Asia Bibi finds herself in Pakistan.

Asia Bibi had been out collecting berries with neighbours and had taken a drink of water from a well. She was told by her neighbours that, as a Christian, she was unclean and should have not used their cup. An argument followed and at both parties made disparaging remarks about the others faith. Asia was charged with blasphemy and imprisoned in 2009.  She has been kept in solitary confinement and subsequently found guilty and sentenced to death.  Seven years later she is still in prison and awaiting results of appeals to the Supreme Court to have her capital punishment decision overturned.

As a consequence of this blasphemy accusation her family have gone into hiding. Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who looked into her case and stated that the death sentence should be suspended was assassinated as a consequence in 2011 as was Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minority Affairs Minister, a few months later as he too voiced his support for Asia against the blasphemy laws. Asia’s case has been used to whip up hatred against Christians in Pakistan and to help hard-line religious politicians in their search for support.

As we await the news from Ireland we should recall that Pakistan suggested, in 2009, to the United Nations that all its member states should adopt the very constitutional clause that Ireland is currently considering removing. We should also recall that there are still 71 countries which have blasphemy laws on their statute books. That is 71 countries which have laws which place people of minority faiths at serious danger. It is time that these laws were abandoned for the furtherance of free speech and promotion of religious tolerance.

With all this in mind it is extremely regrettable that the European Court of Human Rights  (ECHR) seems to have taken a backward step.  An Austrian woman was found guilty of “disparaging Islam” and the took her case to the ECHR. They did not uphold her appeal and supported her conviction and fine saying that she made ““an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam which could stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace” and that this was not covered by the right to freedom of expression. To be clear, this lady had not said anything to foment violence or hatred against Muslims which would clearly, and rightly, be an offense. She had simply been sacrilegious and blasphemous and while this may be upsetting to some should not be against the law.

Churches, states and people in power may need blasphemy laws, people of faith do not and are particularly at risk from such laws. After Ireland, 71 to go !

 

 

 

 

 

There should be a law against it.

There should be a law against it.

My social life has changed. When I was young and energetic it often involved travel, excitement and fun. I recall evenings of humour, laughter, risks and the promise of passion. Now that I am old this has largely gone. My social events are now much more stolid and staid events. They increasingly consist of groups of people bemoaning the state of the world and the behaviour of those in it. Now I enjoy a moan and groan as much as the next carnaptious codger, and am no stranger to “in my day” or “when I was a lad” rants, but I have been rather concerned by a trend to accompany all these observations of current annoyances or inadequacies with a call to legislate against them. All problems, it seems, could be solved by a piece of legislation ; puppy farming to pollution, racist language to rioting, surly service staff to sexual impropriety, all we need to do is to draft the appropriate legislation and hey presto, problem solved. Really, there just should be a law against it!

Now I find this zeal for legislation rather strange. The people calling for these laws are clearly so upset by the behaviour that they witness that it has made them blind to the obvious. They bemoan the behaviour of others that they find shameful or abhorrent and stress that, during their lives, they have never done such a thing. That, during all the great many years they have lived, they have ensured that they never fell into such antics and there needs exist a law to protect people from making such errors. But during their illustrious lives there was no law against it. They managed to behave well without the cordon of law to protect them from error. They managed to get to late life avoiding killing, assaulting, cheating or conning their friends and family.

If they did not and had indeed lived a life of irresponsible abuse and debauchery, leaving a wake of victims and damage behind them, then perhaps we could respect their calls for new laws. If it were murderers and rapists calling for tougher legislation them perhaps their experience should guide us. If criminals start to say that an inadequacy of laws is the problem we should prick up our ears. But it is not, it is well meaning and well behaved people who are living proof that one does not need law to live well who make these statements. They managed to see actions were wrong and avoided them but feel others will not be as morally capable, as they are, and need laws to guide them. No law constrained their behaviour but others need laws to hold their desires and impulses in check.

The vast majority of us live our lives trying to live well. We try and pick a way through life which benefits us and our fellows. We have a moral code within us, of which we are to greater or lesser extent aware, which guides our actions and informs us of what we believe to be right or wrong. This internal code is in play for the vast majority of mankind for the vast majority of the time we only require the law for the very small number of times that this fails. Our internal code is much more important to us and ultimately takes priority over any law in any event. We know this code and it is always available to us, so it is this that we use as our guide. We do not use a lawbook to guide us, except when we are entering very strange and uncharted territories. We can enter into nearly all situations and deal with them if we have a clear internal moral view of the world.

Rather than making more and more calls for legislation we should look at this another way. If we feel people are prone to behaving badly we must presume that they don’t share the same code as ourselves. If they have a moral code but it differs from ours we should listen and find out why. Perhaps they are right, and it is we who need to change. (When the abolitionists or pacifists broke the laws and transgressed what was the common moral code they were not in fact wrong. The majority was in the wrong as time came to show). If it is not that they have a different code, but rather that they have no, or an inadequate code, then law is still not the answer. The answer is surely to try and rectify this deficit. But here we are in very dark and treacherous waters as we are in the area of moral instruction – teaching people, especially the young, how to be good and moral people.

In a secular society we are rather afraid of ideas like this as it carries ideas of religious authority. It is perhaps why we shy away from the idea of helping children, and others, learn what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to say that “it all depends” and there “is no absolute right or wrong” and hope that everything will work out for the best for everybody. But one could argue that a secular society need to consider moral instruction even more carefully as does not have any Divine guidance to call upon. But perhaps this is precisely why there are increasing numbers of grumpy old people collecting in groups, looking at society and lamenting the changes they see and clamouring for “a law against it”. Perhaps I must blame this change for my poorer social life.

It we want a better world we need better people. If we act by making more and more of our moral code external to us (by defining it in law) our own moral faculties will atrophy and weaken through disuse. We should aim to make ourselves better as individuals so there is less need for law rather than allow our baser natures to be our guide and relying on other to keep us in check by regulation as this is the way to totalitarianism and there can be no law against that!

Monogamy through the eyes of chickens.

I have been feeling increasingly sorry for Emrys this last month or so. Emrys is our rather elderly Sussex cockerel and over recent times has started to look rather the worse for wear. He is the only cockerel we have who has a name as he was a gift from a neighbour and arrived named. My wife has continued to use the name since so he is quite unique amongst our poultry in having a name (Though I think secretly my wife has names for some of the ducks also. I sometimes call the stag turkey names, but these vary on how annoying he is and are not fit for printing). Emrys and his flock live at the front of the small holding and the other flocks of hens and their cockerel are spread as far apart as possible. This gives them space to roam and, initially at least, reduces the fighting.

As time passes, and as the birds get more adventurous and curious, the area around their base, that that they call home, gradually expands. A few months ago, Emrys’s flock’s area grew until it butted against the newest cockerel and his flock’s area. Cockerels do not mix and never make good neighbours. Most cockerels view any other cockerel as the spawn of the devil, even if it is their own offspring, and see their presence as a reason to fight. These fights are vicious, and can sometimes can be fatal to one of the birds, though usually they are short-lived, noisy, flashes of talons and beaks until one party retreats. Although often in these quick spats they can inflict serious damage on each other.

Emrys has been losing these fights. He has lost a

081218_1302_Monogamythr1.jpg
Emrys after losing again

lot of his plumage and carries some scars on his comb. Sometimes he is bloodied and hides away in the bushes. His nemesis, the other cockerel, steals his ladies during the day luring them away with promises of treats and food. I know there are dangers with anthropomorphism and I am not sure how much Emrys understands of his situation, I hope not too much, but it is very hard to not feel sad when you spy him, on his own, obviously just having lost a spat and watching his wives playing with the other group. But is does bring home to you the many positive advantages that we, as a species, have experienced but failed to arrive for chickens. When one looks into the eyes of a chicken, or regards their scaly legs and talons, it is very easy to see their relationship to the dinosaurs. Looking at them is like peering down the tunnel of the years to primitive times.

 

 

Chickens and other fowl are different to other birds. The vast majority of birds, about 90%, are monogamous. Some may just be monogamous for one breeding season, some for a series of seasons, and some species mate for life (famously swans, albatrosses, owls and eagles). It is generally assumed that the development of monogamy, in bird and other animals (including ourselves), was very valuable in ensuring the development of vulnerable offspring. Having both parents actively involved in the rearing of children helps their survival, this is especially important when the young are born immature and very vulnerable as with birds, and especially so with humans.

This monogamy helps young develop more safely. It also results in closer bonds between family members and is possibly the evolutionary driver to our human experience of love. If we are to mate and stay with one individual we need an extremely strong feeling of attraction which can outweigh the pressures of sexual attraction of other potential mates. Love of one partner to another, of a parent to a child, of a family member to another is the primary glue that allows us to join people together and create families and society. Although there is a current tendency to decry monogamy as traditional, old-fashioned and out-of-date most research concludes that monogamy is a valuable and core element of stable societies. A paper by Heinrich et al summarised thus :-

In suppressing intrasexual competition and reducing the size of the pool of unmarried men, normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robbery and fraud, as well as decreasing personal abuses. By assuaging the competition for younger brides, normative monogamy decreases (i) the spousal age gap, (ii) fertility, and (iii) gender inequality. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, normative monogamy increases savings, child investment and economic productivity. By increasing the relatedness within households, normative monogamy reduces intra-household conflict, leading to lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death and homicide. These predictions are tested using converging lines of evidence from across the human sciences.

A recent review in The Economist explored the link between polygamy and war. Worrisomely it showed that in areas where polygyny was allowed, more than one woman per man, then violence and war were much more common. It also explored the reasons underpinning the breakdown of monogamy and the risks that this holds for society. Unfortunately as the Koran blesses polygyny there is considerable growth in the practice in Islamic areas. This does tend to act as a destabilising influence on society in these regions and, as the article discusses :–

Wherever it is widely practised, polygamy (specifically polygyny, the taking of multiple wives) destabilises society, largely because it is a form of inequality which creates an urgent distress in the hearts, and loins, of young men. If a rich man has a Lamborghini, that does not mean that a poor man has to walk, for the supply of cars is not fixed. By contrast, every time a rich man takes an extra wife, another poor man must remain single. If the richest and most powerful 10% of men have, say, four wives each, the bottom 30% of men cannot marry. Young men will take desperate measures to avoid this state.

This has lead to the finding that “Polygamous societies are bloodier, more likely to invade their neighbours and more prone to collapse than others are.” Although the research shows this I knew this already  from watching Emrys. He is unable to cooperate with his neighbours, he can’t develop friendships with others, his whole life is fighting, preparing for fighting and trying to subdue his harem. It unfortunately seems that if as a society we start to abandon monogamy we might start to live a bit more like Emrys, and, had Emrys the ability to think, he’d tell us this is not a good idea.

oznor
Hey Emrys ! Were these your wives ?

 

More burqa madness.

More burqa madness.

This week Denmark’s parliament voted to pass a law which effectively bans Muslim  women wearing either the Burqa or Niqab in public places. In this they have joined a number of other European countries in introducing such a ban ; France, Belgium, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland have similar bans, or partial bans, in some areas. The reasons given for these bans, including the most recent one, is always the apparently sensible need to have an uncovered face during some interactions for security or clarity of communication. However, despite the protestations that these bans are not aimed at the Muslim populations particularly it is clear that this is not the case.

The Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen was quite clear that he though these aspects of religious observance by Muslims were not welcome in Denmark when, in 2010, he said

“the burqa and the niqab do not have their place in the Danish society. They symbolize a conception of the woman and of the humanity to which we are fundamentally opposed and that we want to fight in the Danish society,”

I also think it is unlikely that any undecided voters could have mistaken the intention behind the poster used by the Danish Peoples’ Party who supported a stronger version of the law, including prison sentences, which quite clearly has Muslim women in its sights :-

DegrUbdW0AAHbR1It is clear that, despite all the protestations that these laws and bans are in place to improve communication and safety and that they have no particular religion in mind, these laws all stem from a desire to make life difficult for Muslim women in these countries. It is disingenuous to say otherwise and to try and present them acts of a liberal society.

Across Europe there have been many changes to societies and these have included the effects of mass migration. Cultures which were previously Christian now find themselves largely secular and populations which were previously homogenous are now much more mixed. While there are aspects of these changes which are welcomed and beneficial there are also many aspects which people find disadvantageous and worrisome. This is particularly so to the elderly and the working class.

The elderly see the erosion of faith and religion in their culture and the growth of new, and strange, faiths. Often these religions appear hostile to each other. The well published wars raging in the middle-east and the importation of terrorism to European cities will cause, more than just the elderly, to become fearful. And in this regard the term islamophobia may be correct, they do fear the growth of  Islam, and are not reassured when they see the persecution of Christians in the Middle East or local police activity oin their capitals.

The working class believe mass migration has allowed their wages to be undercut and living standards to fall and made them fear for their and their families future. In times of stress they see their welfare states failing to meet the demands placed upon it and start to question whether it is being spread too thinly. Welfare states survive because we all feel “we are all  in it together”, it is the governmental form of our collective identity, and it operates best when people feel a sense of social cohesion. We all want the best for our neighbours as we can understand  them and their predicaments. However, as societies become increasingly diverse that cohesion is loosened and the willingness to share with those we don’t recognise as “like us” is reduced.

These groups, and others, think on the group level. They think about “them” not about the individual, not about their specific neighbour, not about A’ishah and Zarif and their kids next door. The more people know people from other cultures the less they fear them. Those who report the most hostility to strangers are those who have the least interactions with them. It is true to say that those living in the very diverse cities tend to have less xenophobic feelings to those living in small rural backwaters.

Day to day, first hand experience, does a great deal to counter prejudice and bigotry. Knowledge is the best antidote ignorance and the best source of knowledge is communication. Unfortunately communication in this particular area has been bvery poor. The major migration shifts were never discussed and now the problems people perceive, rightly or wrongly, are not discussed either. When attempts have been made to question aspects of migration which are seen to be adverse all too often the response has been to shut the debate down with cries that “You can’t say that. You are being racist“. While this does effectively shut down conversation it does not sort the problem. Those with concerns still have concerns but now know they are not allowed to discuss them.  They know that they are no longer seen as part of polite society.

Unable to discuss their concern they have to try new strategies. They switch from unacceptable concerns (“I’m worried about my job prospects”, “I worry there are not enough maternity beds”) to proxy concerns “I think it is terrible the way these womens’ faces are covered” which allows them to attack the group without appearing to do so. This is what is happening with these clothing bans, although with very little that obscures the true intention.

As an aside, a further danger of this refusal to discuss these concerns, is that it actually creates the problem that is feared.  If someone can’t discuss their worries, and feels they are defined as a racist for doing so, may come to think  “I’m as well hung for a sheep as a lamb” and start listening to those who wish to foment racial tensions and divides. Much of the success of Brexit, Trump, and the populist parties in Europe can be seen as a popular response to a ruling class which will not honestly debate concerns – they are then forced to listen.

I fear that this Danish ban, and the others preceding it, are signs of the tension that arises from problems with our social cohesion. The European Court of Human Rights  has allowed these bans as they (Denmark, Belgium, France) stating that it is reasonable to infringe the individual’s right or religious freedom for the sake of “living together” and “community values”. The hallmark of a tolerant society is that it people live together despite having different views of the world and different habits and behaviours. A tolerant society is one in which the minority is tolerated and not forced to bend to fit the majority’s wishes. The EHCR ruling flies in the face of basic Human Rights by supporting the idea that some individual human rights can be jettisoned for the benefit of the greater good. This approach is always fine when you are one of the majority. Those who support this strategy should consider their future. Their delight at banning the burqa might in hindsight seem misguided, if (although unlikely) 50 years from now the majority population were Islamic. Sometimes our mistakes are much clearer in retrospect.

This ban will also fail to do what we need. We need more integration and this only comes from communication. As we intermingle and interact with others we learn of each others beliefs and opinions. Through this we adopt and change, we integrate. Over time cultures live side by side and benefit equally from each other. I look at the many Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and other who are fully integrated members of my community. Certainly they practice a different religion but otherwise you could not tell them form any other member of our society. They are shopkeepers, doctors, plumbers, taxi drivers, neighbours, friends and , increasingly, family much more than they are Jews or Bhuddist or whatever.

These bans push us apart and cause us to see others as “them”. It increases the divides between us and increases the fears and worries that are there. If we really were worried about the woman’s role in Islam this is completely the wrong way to proceed. An observant woman is not going to abandon her faith just because of an ill-thought law.  This law may mean that the woman doesn’t venture out now in public places and be less influenced by aspects of our culture which promote female equality and liberation. It may keep her in the home, where she is much more so under the influence of her cultural leaders. If we really wish to help woman relinquish the burqa the way to do so is by showing that living a good and moral life without is entirely possible and discussing the issue. Unfortunately you are unlikely to discuss things with people who seem to be attacking you.

You can not compel someone into a religion.  Obedience is not observance. If we wish to see religious and moral beliefs change it will occur by example. By showing that an open culture is a successful culture, by showing that equality and religion and good bed-fellows, people may start to think. If your moral beliefs and religious ideals are superior to others then your life and actions will showcase them. You will become the example and encourage others to follow. Many people come to Europe because it is a liberal and tolerant culture. We must display that tolerance and openness if we want it to continue. This is especially important at times when we feel uncertain or afraid, it is when we are tested that our true metal is revealed. If we think freedom and religious expression are important we need to defend them. Not just for ourselves but also for others.

 

 

There is always something to be ashamed of (*)

When I made the jump and left the city for the rural life I was uncertain about how some aspects of my life might change. I was, however, quite sure that moving to a smaller community would be better. In his book, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind, Yuval Harari suggests that the largest group that we can live amongst comfortably, knowing our family and neighbours, is 150 of our fellows – above this number we need to call on cultural developments to substitute for our personal knowledge of people. In essence, up to 150 people – then first hand knowledge and gossip allow us to cope, above this we need extra strategies.

In the city I was aware that I was in a huge amorphous mass of people. Because we lived closely packed together our privacy became important. It was important to keep your life separate from your neighbours as we lived cheek by jowl with them. When the situation forces you to live close with your fellows and en masse it becomes important to keep your distance. Paradoxically, though I lived in a large group I knew relatively few people, I knew my immediate neighbours, but relatively few others in the street. I knew very little about people living 100 yards from my front door.

In place of my local community I had my professional community. I mixed with other NHS consultants, lawyers and teachers, in short I mixed with people like me. We would meet and bemoan why others  did not see the world as we did and could not see how correct we were in our analyses.   In the days before social media there were already echo chambers and I lived inside one. My already skewed viewpoint became increasingly bent by agreement and repetition.

When I moved, one of the first obvious differences I noted were the simple benefits of living in a small local community. Within a very short period I knew my neighbours;  I knew the shop workers, the staff that worked in the local farmers market, the farm workers, the foresters, the mechanics,  the people who worked the land adjacent to ours. I quickly discovered that I knew many more people, not just by sight but their name and history, than I ever had known when I lived in the large city.

It was, and is, a pleasant feeling to recognise your fellows when out and about. It gives a warm feeling of community and sense of security. During the recent storms it was our neighbours who sorted out the problems of fallen trees and blocked roads well before the local authority even thought about responding. When I have had problems with livestock it has been neighbours who have assisted and I have, in my turn, assisted them. When walking through the town centre I can recognise the faces of strangers and visitors to the area as I know who is local and who is just passing through.

In the main I like this but I have been aware that this is not a simple relationship but something that strikes at the core of living in a community. Because I know others, they know me, this means my reputation is much more important than it ever was before. When you are anonymous it doesn’t matter much about your reputation.  If you committed some heinous crime life would be much harder in a small community. True, if there were exonerating circumstances these may be more likely to be recognised (and taken into account), but failing this if you become the outlaw then you might prefer the anonymity of the city rather than the gaze of your fellows.

However, even at a much smaller level this reliance on reputation and knowledge of our fellows is important and, I feel, has beneficial effects on our behaviour. Imagine you are driving through town and someone pulls out suddenly and cuts you up. In the city it is all too easy to jerk the finger and shout the expletives, you’ll never see them again. In this community you might look in the car window and see your elderly neighbour on the way home after a worrisome visit to the doctors, you really don’t want to be shouting and gesticulating. Indeed had you done so you would rightly feel ashamed about your uncouth behaviour.

In the town if you drive along and notice someone with a flat tyre it is quite easy to drive past and reassure yourself that they will have phoned for help. Here, in this community,  you will know that you could be recognised, even if you do not recognise them, and it will be known that you did not help.  Passing on the other side would be the wrong thing to do, your reputation would suffer, and you would tend to feel shame and guilt that you had not taken the opportunity to help a fellow in need. In smaller communities you will tend to work with the same people again and again rather than interacting with many people on single, or a few, occasions. This allows you to develop your reputation by repeatedly showing such characteristics as honesty, fairness, punctuality or diligence. In short, you are able to demonstrate your honour.

I had not anticipated that a move to a smaller community would put me in closer contact to feelings of shame and its opposite honour. I am glad that it has as it has reconnected me with my own core beliefs. I know what I think is important and I now have to try to live in accord with these principles. This rediscovery of shame is important and beneficial. It is through shame that we change our behaviour, without it we can plod on seemingly oblivious to our failings and mistakes. I fear in larger societies we have substituted a culture of dignity for a culture of honour. We have substituted the right to respect for the duty to earn it.  While this may help maintain social cohesion by asking very little of individuals other then a modicum of good behaviour it means we lose some of the ability for self-improvement.

In a culture which has little role for11REGRET-popup shame, and tends to feel that we should accept everyone for who they are regardless, there are few prompts for people to improve themselves. As I have reported before, I wish people had cared enough about me, and dared, to comment on my gluttony and obesity so that shame may have driven me to diet  – rather than, as was the case, fear of death from diabetic complications prompting me to do so. For many of the current problems by which we are beset, are often the consequences of excess, indulgence or of short term thinking – an early experience of shame might be much preferable to the later damage experienced.

Most religions, indeed most moral codes, stress the importance of self awareness and self scrutiny so that we may be aware of our failings and correct them. The story of Adam and Eve in the bible can be read as mankind’s discovery of shame and recognition of our failings is integral to Christianity (“Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” Ecclesiastes 7:20) . Likewise recognition of misdeeds and repentance are core constructs in the Jewish (Teshuva) and Islamic faiths (Tawba) and means whereby we instruct ourselves to become better people.

If we build an increasingly shameless society, one in which we are fearful of judging our own or others behaviour, we should not be surprised if it behaves in a shameless manner. If we take away one of our checks and balances we can expect to see increasing problems with excessive consumption, poor interpersonal relationships and failure to be good custodians of our environment. Let’s hear it for shame ! Even in large societal groups we still need shame,  the exhortation that “If it feels good do it !” is fine as long as it is accompanied by the knowledge “If it is wrong don’t do it”, you need both halves of the equation to live well.


(*) In this case it is my grammar, and ending a sentence with a preposition, which causes my blushes – “There is always something of which we can be ashamed” – Sorry, I’ll try harder. This is something I won’t put up with !


 

Lets hear it for the puritans !

I find that unherd is rapidly becoming one of the best sites on the web for intelligent articles that promote thought and hopefully debate. As an example Giles Fraser’s February article Why does everyone have it in for the puritans makes excellent reading. Hopefully it will stimulate people to think what goals they have substituted to replace the aims of the puritans and perhaps cause us to consider what we have lost in the process.

No more virtuous but a little less sinful

No more virtuous but a little less sinful

Looking back over 2017, in preparation for starting the new year, I decided that if I could not be especially good in 2018  perhaps at least I could try to be less bad. Perhaps in 2018 I could make less errors than usual and become a little better by altering the balance sheet, not by gaining more plus marks but by loosing less negative marks.  I good place to start, I thought,  might be the Seven Deadly Sins. If I could not be virtuous hopefully I can be less sinful.

There is not one of the seven deadly sins that I have not committed. Perhaps not often nor repetitively for many, but there is a clear theme in the seven sins which applies to me and my failings.

  • 800px-Tableau_de_mission_-François-Marie_Balanant_tableau_1-Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Greed
  • Envy
  • Wrath
  • Sloth
  • Pride

When listed in this order, the warnings about desire and want are very easy to see. The first four sins all take this theme :-

  • Lust – the desire for pleasures of the flesh
  • Gluttony – the desire for the pleasures of food an drink
  • Greed – the love for material possessions
  • Envy – the desire for things rightly possessed by others.

The christian church is clearly of the opinion that avarice and greed are dangers that we must avoid. Indeed it holds that greed “is the root of all evil and a sure path to corruption“. Islamic teachings share this concern as revealed in the Hadith saying “Watch out for greed because the people before you perished from it. Greed led them to be miserly so they became misers. Greed led them to break the ties (of kinship) so they broke them. Greed led them to sins so they committed sins” (Abu Dawud). One of the three poisons of Buddism is Raga or greed, and in the Hindu theology lobh (greed) and kama (lust) are the passions of the mind which prevent one from finding salvation.

Leaving the major religions and looking at the views of the ancients the same advice comes clearly to the fore. Plato detested greed and the accumulation of wealth as did the cynics and stoics who saw that the purpose of life was live a virtuous life. This virtuous life  would lead to happiness and, to be virtuous, necessitated the avoidance of greed and materialistic desire. The more recent philosophers concur; David Hume felt greed was one of the most destructive of vices.  Despite the protestations of Gordon Geko that “Greed is good” Adam Smith did not believe so. Though he felt that self-interest was a valuable human trait he deplored the application of this if it were to the detriment of others; cooperative self interest was good, that which tried to obtain more than a fair share (greed) was viewed in a very poor light. As he wrote :-

“To be anxious, or to be laying a plot either to gain or to save a single shilling, would degrade the most vulgar tradesman in the opinion of all his neighbors”

Adam Smith championed the view of voluntary self-restraint, the avoidance of greed, and held that this underpinned the healthy operation of a market economy and society as a whole.

Therefore it would appear that the consensus of religious and philosophical thought form the ancients until now is that greed is one of the major sins and problems to which mankind is heir. Certainly in our modern affluent, post-scarcity society, many of our problems do appear to relate to greed and avarice rather then need and lack. In terms of health, in the west, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity all seem to be markers of excess consumption.  Looking at mental health services these seem to be drowning under the dual tides of people damaged by substance abuse and those dissatisfied and disillusioned by life not meeting their desires.In social terms our family structures, which helped us develop a successful caring society, are being jettisoned in preference for satisfaction of our erotic desires. In politics greed drives increasing sequestration of wealth and increasing inequality between rich and poor. In global terms our greed rapes our natural resources and threatens our continued existence. Unless we all tackle greed our future looks increasingly bleak. Everything has to start somewhere and I am going to start with me and my own problems with greed.

So, while I may not be able to be much better in 2018 (I am not going to give myself targets to which I will never adhere) I am going to have the low aim of being less bad. I am going to pay attention to my desires, curb my tendencies to want things I don’t need, consider giving things to others rather than holding them for myself.Generally I am going to consume and want less.  Perhaps if I do all of this, perhaps if I am just a little less bad, it will be almost like being good.