Monday, 31 December 2007

Justified and Ancient

Coming back to work after Xmess, I was asked by a colleague whether I have celebrated Christmas. In return I asked for the definition of an Xmess celebration, and the answer was – “did you have a Christmas tree?”
I said we didn’t, but I also asked in return whether it’s the Xmess tree that defines a Christmas celebration. There was a bit of a puzzled look there for a second, and then the question turned into – “do you and your wife exchange gifts?”
I said we didn’t and repeated my former question – is it the exchange of gifts that defines a Christmas celebration?
At which point they gave up.
For the record, I don’t have a problem with Christmas trees, not even with the pagan symbolism involved in the act, other than the obvious ecological one and not so obvious ethical one: if you were a tree, and bearing in mind that as with all living creatures trees are our cousins, would you like to be cut off just for someone’s stupid ceremony? I’ll shut up with this question for now, though, because it applies to too many of the things that we do and thus it is too complex to address here.
I also don’t have a problem with exchanging gifts. But it’s not the gift itself that counts; it’s the effort that goes into finding a gift that the receiver would like to receive, and to be frank in the displays of Xmess gift giving I have witnessed so far that effort was practically tramped over by acts of sheer consumerism. Xmess gifts are more like Xmess waste. And even if one likes receiving quantities of trash, what values does one inherit from such an act? A photo of a child (excuse the lack of identifying details) standing next to a pile of gifts larger than the Everest has quite horrified me: no matter how good the gifts are, no one should be receiving so many gifts at a single point in time! I foresee a problem with Dylan's birthday parties...
At this point I’ll repeat myself and state that in my opinion, Xmess is about all of the above – trees and gifts, throw in some food that I can’t stand – but mostly about being with one’s family. Given that we don’t have much of a family with us, we have adopted a different ritual: we go away somewhere nice instead and have ourselves picnics (not like we have a choice there; everything’s closed on Xmess day). While this year things went a bit astray for us (I blame Dylan), I think that in general I can safely say we do celebrate Xmess. It’s an unconventional celebration, but then again – who cares?

The above mentioned confrontation between people coming from different religious backgrounds demonstrates a nice problem that religion imposes on us.
For argument’s sake, let’s say that you live in England. England is a country with a long Christian tradition, god shave the queen and all. Lately, however, things are changing: people of other cultures are beginning to raise their heads, and suddenly you have Muslims and Hindus around you as well.
Let’s say that you’re a Christian English boy. Everything around you tells you that Christianity is the way to go: you’re told how great Jesus was, how nice god is, how Christianity leads to salvation, etc. It’s probably never literally said but it’s very well implied that as a Christian, you’re better than everyone else simply because you’re on the right channel to god. If you’re a Catholic you’re even repeatedly told you have better reception than the Anglicans, but let’s ignore sects for now.
Then you go to school and you learn that all people are equal; a nice modern value. And then you bump into Muslim kids. Muslims are similar to you: they also believe in a god that does nice things; but they’re different to you because as far as they know their way is the true channel to god.
Thus you end up with a cognitive dissonance: on one hand, you know that Christianity rules and therefore Islam is inferior; on the other you know that all people are equal. How can you live with these contradictions? In the past, with the absence of the equality value, this was an easy question to answer – either “kill them all” or “convert them all”. With equality, however, comes complexity.
The answer supplied by modern day society is called “respect”. You are taught that while you should think highly of your own religious beliefs, you should unconditionally respect others’ beliefs. Offending someone by ridiculing their beliefs is a no-no. They may be inferior ignorants, but you must respect them for their inferiority and keep those notions to yourself! There may not be much true respect in this enforced “respect”, but religion gets yet another free get out of jail card here (in addition to its well established tax freedom): if you are to criticize religion you guarantee yourself the wrath of the politically correct camp as well as the expected wrath of the fundamentalist.
What do I make of all this, personally? Two things:
1. People are not always equal to one another. Anyone telling you that Bill Gates is equal to a street bum is a liar. People, however, should all have equal rights.
2. The “respect” solution is bullshit. Respect should never mean the cancellation of all legal permits to question a concept. Instead, everything should be open to criticism and scrutiny, including religion; that, by the way, happens to be the basis of the scientific approach. People should be taught and raised to think and question, and if they happen to find that a certain religion answers their questions best then so be it. So far, however, the mainstream scientific community – society’s heaviest practicing scrutinizers – have failed to find the slightest proof to support any of humanity’s religions.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it is my impression that most religious believers have never asked questions about their beliefs; they just accepted as fact what their elders told them. And that is wrong! You don’t accept a used car salesperson telling you the car they offer you is a gem, you go and have that car tested by an expert; why would you then go on to accept an entire system or morals based on blind faith and blind faith alone?

Which naturally leads me to re-discuss Tony Blair. I have previously expressed my disappointment of his recently exposed religious tendencies and of his confession that religion had a lot to do with his policies, including his invasion to Iraq. That post has earned me some heavy criticism (which you’re welcome to read together with the post here), so I would like to reiterate my opinion on Blair.
At the time the Iraqi war was initiated we were all told the reason behind it is the stockpile of weapons of mass destruction accumulated by the then Iraqi regime. As it turned out not that long afterwards no such weapons existed, and worse – all the leaders sending us to this war knew this was the case and yet they have continued lying to us (remember Colin Powell presenting fake evidence before the UN council?). The war itself went on to create more casualties for the West than Bin Laden achieved on 11/9/01, not to mention casualties on the Iraqi side which are six figures high. And then you have all the resources that were wasted on the war, which could have solved the world’s global warming problems on their own or which could have annihilated all poverty in this world and probably the next one, too.
The question is, what was it then that drove those world leaders to invade Iraq if weapons of mass destruction weren’t the reason? This is a very serious question, especially as it is still a very small number of people in the world that control the fate of entire nations by determining whether to wage war or not. Jo has recently finished reading the excellent book “Guns of August”, a book that discusses the historical events leading to World War 1. With the retrospective gained through a century gone by, we look back at World War 1 and we say to ourselves “what a foolish war” and “what a stupid reason to have a war for”. President Kennedy has cited the book as one of the reasons why he chose to disregard his advisers and not attack Cuba during the crisis there, a decision for which we still have a world to live in. President Bush, however, probably never read the book before deciding to invade Iraq (and probably afterwards, too), and thus failed to learn from history. Why was it, then, that Blair – obviously an intellectual – followed Bush on this foolish affair?
I think it is pretty safe to say that the Iraqi war was waged for economic reasons: the West wanted control over Iraqi oil, and the USA especially wanted to ensure American Dollars are still the world’s currency at a time in which Iraq was considering a move to Euros (thus helping explain why France was so opposed to the war). Blair, however, broke the deck of cards when he announced that religion was involved in the decision making process: we all know that Bush and god have a special relationship, but we didn’t know Blair has had one as well.
I suspect most people, including myself to one extent or another, forgive Blair for that. After all, Blair follows the Christian religion, and this dogma is so nice and forgiving, isn’t it? Well, that depends on who you ask. Allow me to recite a few quick examples for the opposite off the top of my head:
1. The Christian god is the same as the Jewish god, and that Jewish god was one mean nasty piece of work: remember what he did to innocent first born Egyptians? Or to the people that lived in the land of Israel when Joshua came along for a visit?
2. Remember the Spanish Inquisition?
3. Remember the suppression of one Galileo Galilei? You may argue it is an irrelevant old story, but when Blair converted to Catholicism a couple of weeks ago he was accused of not fully agreeing with the Vatican’s position on abortions, thus taking an oath in vain. Are all Christians expected to blindly follow the leader in the face of facts?
4. Remember all that was done to, say, Jews in the name of Christianity? Hitler didn’t invent antisemitism, you know. The church, however, practiced it for more than a millennium before he came along.
5. Jesus advocated to turn the other chick and to do unto others as you would like the others to do to you (aka the golden rule). Sounds so nice and cool, but is it really practical? Not in the least, which is perhaps why no one, Pope included, follows suit. So Christians may preach one thing, but they certainly do another thing (and to reiterate the point, there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s the policy that’s impractical, not the actual actions).
When questioning them, then, Christian values and their real world implementations are suddenly not that nice and sound at all. You may argue that Blair is beyond the Spanish Inquisition, and I will definitely support you on that, but the question still remains – what is it, then, that Blaire took out of religion and inserted into his decision making process?
And to go to the extreme, in what way are the elements Blair took out of religion and into his decision making process different than the elements taken by Bin Laden out of his religion when he decided to blow the Twin Towers down, given that as demonstrated above both religion can be twisted enough to support any argument one could seek support for? What is it that makes Blair’s religious justifications better than Bin Laden in a world where we should all practice “respect” for each other’s religion?

Another question raised in my head is this: Why did Blair follow his advisers’ line to hide the religious aspects of his decision making from the public? Is he, as the number one public figure in the UK, entitled to keep such information to himself?
For all we know, Blair could have suddenly exposed himself to be a follower of Kali, that nice goddess from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and expose himself as a war monger. I know, I know, this sounds like a particularly silly argument to make; Kali is just a fable, as real a god as Zeus or Thor. And I fully agree; my point is that due to the lack of foundation to the belief, tomorrow’s Jesus will be regarded the way today’s Kali is.
Whichever way you look at it, some foul play was involved in the decision to invade Iraq. We, the people of this world, have a duty to ensure the survival of our species and the survival of this planet we live on, and in a world of World Wars and weapons of mass destruction we cannot allow ambiguous decision making to go on unattended. If religion was involved in the decision making process, then religion should have been exposed as such at the time so that the public can make their own decision on whether a war (any war) is justified.

That’s it for this year.


jane said...

I do appologise for the offensive picture of Georgia

Moshe Reuveni said...

Since when are you reporting to me?