Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Selfishness and Altruism

In various chat forums around the web, I have come across long discussions about selfishness and altruism. Moralistic posters argue that we should do something for its own sake, not for any benefit that we derive from it. They loudly condemn the hidden agenda behind actions supposedly done out of the goodness of one's heart which actually work to the benefit of the person doing it. If they come to believe that there is a hidden benefit to moral actions, they condemn all human beings as pathetically selfish. On the other hand, you have extreme libertarians, particularly of the Ayn Rand variety (I've heard Objectivists called Randroids, which left me in stitches--it calls to mind Daleks in dark pin-striped suits.) These people argue that there are really no true selfless acts, or if there are, there shouldn't be. They claim that altruists are in fact lazy people who are actually trying to hoodwink honest, hard working people into handing over the fruits of their labour. When faced with the poor and destitute, the Randroids would echo Scrooge's words: Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? And if they be like to die, then perhaps they'd better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

In fact, both these views share a common view of human beings as atomized, disconnected entities, in which the self extends only as far as our physical form. Moralists stress the benefit of all outside this self, while Objectivists stress the benefit only to this limited self. The common error is the belief in this limited self. As we mature, we (hopefully) move beyond this limited self to an expanded self, including first our family, then our tribe (political, social, ideological, or religious,) moving on to a broader conception of the tribe, and ultimately, to identification with all of humanity and even to nature itself. Having a good grasp of ethics simply means that you are mature enough to know that what's good for others is good for you. The whole selfishness-altruism argument is a red herring.

Selfishness is bad for you. Suicides happen because the victim feels disconnected from other people and unable to influence them. We're social animals; we have an inherent need to be with others, and this means sharing. Indeed, the more we cooperate, the more we thrive. Any business that doesn't offer win-win transactions won't be in business for very long. Unbridled greed is as bad for capitalism as poor productivity. The reason that capitalism works so well is that it limits competition to the least common relationships and encourages cooperation in the vast majority of relationships. Monopolies and cartels are broken by the state because they violate this principle; they allow a few people at the top to cooperate and screw everyone else. Communism failed so miserably because, despite all its propaganda about comradeship, it encouraged competition, betrayal, and political in-fighting at virtually every level of society. Regardless of our fetishistic glorification of competition, our most hallowed model of competition is sports. But sports is about a group of people playing by the rules of the game; ritualistically limited competition within a framework of cooperation. When someone breaks the rules, they are penalized. When someone cheats, they get thrown out.

Behaviour which genuinely works against one's own interests is rarely beneficial to anyone, because it usually permits others to break the social contract without penalty. This is called enabling. It permits someone to pursue a course that is ultimately self-destructive well past the point where it would otherwise be prevented. In this relationship, the pair consisting of addict, alcoholic, or criminal, and his accomplice, act as a single destructive unit. The same could be said for the devoted follower of a bloody tyrant. Eventually the bubble bursts; the destructiveness which the enabler seeks to keep at bay overwhelms the enabler, and everyone else along the way.

Apparently selfless behaviour works to establish and maintain a social contract which works in favour of the selfless person as well. The self expands to include others and certain ideals, without which the person would consider life meaningless. A man who sacrifices himself by throwing his body on a grenade to protect the members of his platoon is acting on a social ethic which exists to keep him and all he loves alive. This serves the extended self. This does not make it any less good or selfless. The dying man has simply assimilated a communal ethic to the point that he acts upon it without thinking. He would expect others to do the same. That it fell to him to do it was merely an accident of circumstance.

Religion, and nearly all ethical systems, work to encourage this expanded sense of self. The figure of God represents a commonality amongst all of creation; the communion with God is meant to be an expansion of self without limit, the identification with all people and all things. An infinite self is the same as no-self, because there is no other. This cannot be maintained for more than brief interludes, but it has a powerful impact. Technically speaking, this experience may be a brain-fart--a combination of broken signals to part of our brain, that producing a feeling of dislocation in space. No longer identifying ourselves as being in one point of space, we identify with everything. This is usually combined with a driving certainty in the physical reality of the experience. This confusion of subjective experience as objective reality is called reification. Nevertheless, the outcome of the experience is to try to repeat it and act upon it. If the result is a genuine wish to connect with and help others, then this is a very useful brain-fart. In other words, it confers an adaptive advantage, and should no more be discounted than any other experience.

There is a downside, however, which is that the experience is non-rational, completely subjective, profoundly attractive, and open to a wide variety of interpretation after the fact. If it occurs within a religious, mystical, or occult framework, this sensation of certainty can be hijacked for some rather dubious beliefs. The self, once expanded, is for a while soft and malleable; it is remarkeable not only for what can be included, but for what can be taken away. The result may be a greater love for all humanity, but it can also be redirected towards a simple change of tribal allegiance, with all that is outside of the tribe being considered outside of the experience and therefore not worthy. The tribe can take possession of the experience and charge admission for it. While strong tribal allegiances were beneficial to our ancient ancestors, they can be disastrous in a modern, multicultural world armed with deadly weapons.

While the reification of the mystical experience may be false, there is one fact about the experience that we can be certain of: we enjoy, indeed, we crave the feeling of being connected with more than ourselves. The point of religion should be to expand this connection as far as it can possibly go, to dissolve the opposition between tribes, rather than planting yet another flag on the plain of Armageddon.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The American Dream

The American Dream may be summed up in two words: Social Mobility. The promise of the American Dream is the promise of the Horatio Alger stories, that anyone can make it with enough work and determination. Your fate is in your own hands, and the system is fair and will reward you based upon your own merits. Whether this is generally true or not, there has usually been a sufficient number of cases where this has actually happened to supply anecdotal evidence.

Faith in the American Dream is what keeps both the American economy and American society chugging along. Acording to this doctrine, even the poorest worker is but an aristrocrat in exile, waiting for his big break, his ticket to easy street. If they cannot achieve vast wealth, they can at least attain a decent standard of living and look forward to a comfortable retirement. Social status at birth is no obstacle, or indeed, any guarantee. In the American Dream, America is not ruled by an aristocracy, but a meritocracy.

America has resisted the large labour movements which exist in England, primarily because it represents itself as a society of equals. There can be no class consciousness if there are no classes. The perception of stratification, reenforced in England by the existence of an old aristocracy marked by birth rather than effort, leads those at the bottom of the economic scale to identify themselves as permanent members of that class, and to band together with others of their class to further the interests of their class as a whole. This, too, is an imperfect solution. Class identification reenforces stratification. The solidarity of the workers tends to hold them down even as it locks others at lower economic levels out. The result was the closed shop system, which drew a hard line of division between labour and management, and blocked entry into the shop. Furthermore, the hard antagonism between labour and management impaired productivity, limiting the funds which could be used to pay workers and expand operations, resulting in fewer and lower paid jobs. Unpleasant as Margaret Thatcher was, she at least broke much of this up and provided a better chance for those locked out at the bottom to gain access and climb the ladder.

There have been times when the American Dream has faltered and almost failed: during the early part of the 20th century and during the depression. Both times the spectre of communism loomed large. Karl Marx made one prediction that still holds true: when the workers were not able to afford the products of their own labour, the markets, and the businesses that served them, would collapse, taking the whole system down with them. The first time it was salvaged through the efforts of rich philanthropists, who, convinced of the need for a healthy and contented workforce, poured much of their wealth back into civic improvements, education, and public health. It is ironic that many of these same philanthropists were responsible for much of the damage that they were now seeking to repair, and it is still open to question whether their later efforts for the public good were sufficient to redress the harm they had caused amassing their fortunes. More telling were the early efforts of Henry Ford, who insisted on paying his workers what were essentially dot com wages for the time, creating a working middle class which would eventially form the backbone of American wealth and power. He also promised never to fire anyone who would make an honest effort to work, regardless of ability. Ford himself, though, was a mixed bag; during the depression he employed gangs of enforcers to put down strikers by force, resulting in the death of a number of the very employees to whom he had made these promises.

The second time the American Dream teetered at the brink, it was salvaged by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who instituted large public works projects in the New Deal to sop up the unemployment caused by the crash. Much of the anti-communists ferver of the 50's was a reaction to the flirtations with Communism brought on by the depression. By the 50's, however, much of the motivation for this interest in communism had already dried up. Few people could see any reason to jump a horse that now seemed to have regained its feet, and McCarthyism was simply an exercise in demagoguery, and attempt to seize power by attacking a scapegoat constructed out of an internal enemy that was already too weak to defend itself. The anti-communists, however, had little faith in the judgement of the people, and shared a bizarre conviction with the communists themselves in the power, even the inevitability, of communism's ability to seduce and subvert the will of the people.

The power of the American economy lies not only in it productive capacity, but also in its ability to consume, the strength of its markets, and this is made possible by disposable income in the hands of the vast majority of its people. If there is no one to buy, production becomes pointless. This, at least, was understood by Ford when he paid his workers unprecedented wages, creating a market for his own goods. It is a lesson which needs to be relearned. Low prices based upon low wages leads a race to the bottom, and possibly to a situation where prices which cannot be lowered any further are still too high to be afforded by the majority of the population. This is the America of Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is a classic pyramid scheme, which can only work so long as it grows. Sam Walton was not a villain--he really did intend to share his success with his employees. But he created a trap. Wal-Mart's earlier employees, who were given shares of the company, prospered by holding pieces of an ever growing pie. But the pie has stopped growing, and the result is stagnation, with the vast majority of employees at the bottom stuck on the lowest rung of a ladder whose upper rungs are already too crowded. This stagnation prevents social mobility, setting the stage for the formation of class consciousness, and the death of the American Dream. At this point, Marxism becomes relevant again.

But Marxist solutions are little more than crutches at best, and unmitigated catastrophes at worst. They may be better than nothing, but that does not make them the best solution available. They gain traction only when no other solution is offered. The real solution must come from all levels of society. The working poor are active participants in their own ruin. The key is education. We must all understand that there are consequences to even the simplest of actions, that the price tag on something does not tell us the full cost of what we are buying. Every dollar we spend is a vote. If we spend our money on goods produced or sold on the basis of subsistence wages, we are voting for an economic system which will drag us to the subsistence level. In a globalized market, the poverty of the third world worker is as close as the goods they produce. If their wages are so low that they can never expect to climb out of the hole of poverty and at least buy what they produce, trade deficits become inevitable, and the very gentry who benefit from this arrangement in first world countries will soon find themselves beholden to foreign masters. The workers in third world countries need not make the same as workers in the first world, but they must at least make enough to become consumers themselves, producing a market sufficient to eventually equalize trade between the countries. Any other arrangement puts first world countries on borrowed time.

In the past, at least some of those who held positions of power had sufficient vision to see the wreckage ahead before they reached it, and were able to turn to avoid it. They understood that money will flow from rich to poor, the way air moves from a high pressure area to a low pressure area. This can happen through charity, through a well ordered economic system, or through theft. If charity is scarce, and the economic system is so skewed that vast disparities become entrenched, then the only means of protecting property becomes a police state. And a police state quickly becomes so expensive that a welfare state, by comparison, looks like a dime store bargain. In a police state, the thugs hire out to the highest bidder--but then, the rich are still paying the criminals. And when the thugs figure this out, they find themselves in a position where they can name their price. And there is a danger that the day will come when the enlisted men will turn their guns on their officers, as they did in Russia in 1917. If the police are amongst the working poor, and come to believe themselves trapped in that status, it is only a matter of time before they switch allegiances.

In America that switch is likely to be gradual, a slow erosion of the social contract. The result will not be revolutionary fervour, but a slow rot, powered by the assumption that everyone works in their self interest anyway, so why shouldn't I? If even the illusion of meritocracy collapses, then hard work and idealism will seem naive and be held in contempt. It is faith--real faith, not superstition--that binds a society together, faith even that supports the very value of money. Faith and the ruthless pursuit of wealth have always been bitter enemies; the antagonism between them rings out again and again in every scripture and fable. Evangelicals who rail against the materialism of science have completely missed the point. The real enemy is the materialism of greed, and American Christians seem to have made an alliance with Mammon. They have too many rich patrons to please. This will cost them dearly. It may cost them everything.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Power of Stories

Barry Callaghan was on Big Ideas today, talking about the importance of stories. At one point he mentioned a book which tries to explain all of the strange and miraculous events of the Bible, attempting to establish an historical basis for them. The results are often comical; for example, mana is explained as being the excrement of insects deposited on leaves. Apparently, the Jews wandered around in the Sinai for forty years eating bug shit. This is particularly odd because the Sinai is rather small and can be crossed in four days, and the Egyptians at the time kept meticulous records of all caravans that crossed the desert, and the Jews are never mentioned. Callaghan points out that this inaccuracy does not denigrate the story as a story, but does heap ridicule upon those who would attempt to explain it as a mere description of events, a chronological record. Aristotle said that chronological descriptions of events are the lowest order of discourse. These are what Northrop Frye called the descriptive mode of language, the mode used in accounting, science, crafting, and empirical science. Mathematics and philosophy use the idealist mode of language, while religion and art employ the metaphorical. It is the vital importance of the metaphorical that Callaghan and Frye are defending.

It is ironic that fundamentalists, who rail against the rise of materialism, are themselves slaves to this mode of language, which is entirely materialistic. Far from being the defenders of the spiritual, they are spiritually tone-deaf. They are not merely unqualified to make pronouncements on religious matters--they are uniquely unqualified, the very last people one should consider as authorities on the matter. Their confusion of the spiritual and the material is evident in their reaction to works of fantasy. Unlike millions of child readers, these people cannot tell that the Harry Potter books are fantasy. The rise of modern fundamentalism is the triumph of materialism. The imaginations of these people are so atrophied that they cannot recognize or appreciate a good story when they hear one. Their only yardstick for the merit of a tale is whether is corresponds to physical events. And so, for them, the truth of the Bible must be literal for it to be true at all.

Stories are living pictures of ourselves and others, and the world as seen from human eyes. There is a correspondence to the world; not the world of matter, but the world of the heart. Good characters come to life when the story is told; we can play with them, imagine them in different circumstances. We can also put different characters in the situation, or imagine how the story would unfold if the situation was slightly different. Plot is the question, the characters are the answer, though they may be the wrong answer, leading to further plot entanglements or a tragic ending. The story can defy historical accuracy, get details wrong, even create an completely alternate world with different physical laws, but if the characters are unbelievable, the story will fall apart. The story has its own logic, its own will.

Twisting a story by slaving it to allegory is clumsy at best, a sign that the teller considers the story itself secondary. It is usually done because the teller distrusts works of pure fiction, believing they must be dedicated to a "higher purpose", or because the message must be cloaked in an allegory to avoid persecution--the story as disguise. The Narnia series by C.S. Lewis is an example of the former; Revelations in the Bible is an example of the latter. J.R.R. Tolkien loathed the Narnia books, believing that the art of the story always comes first. The appeal of the Narnia books do not extend beyond childhood; the stories simply do not have the depth or integrity to interest an adult. As for Revelations, it was written by a Christian in a Roman prison, and was a polemic against the Roman empire, predicting the fall of the Emperor and the Empire. St. John disguised it so completely to avoid detection by his captors that almost two millenia later we still can't make head or tales of most of it.

The merely descriptive, to the ancients, was but a poor cousin to poetry, a begger at the table of civilization. In our society this has been reversed. Poetry is of little value, art is merely a possible investment. Much of this might be blamed on the success of science, but science is not the culprit. Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Nerds, who form a large portion of scientific and technical communities, are notorious for their consumption of fantasy and science fiction, comic books, and fantasy role playing games. It seems that imagination and curiousity go hand in hand. Curiousity leads us to the knowledge that furnishes and fires our imagination, and imagination raises further questions and curiousity.

The prevalent prosaic attitude of our materialistic society is that both curiousity and imagination are of no value. Ronald Reagan asked why the federal government should spend money on intellectual curiousity. The question demonstrates a contempt for the world of ideas and dreams in favour of the material--and not the material world of nature, but the material world of commerce. It is not the laboratory that stands against the world of spirit, but the ledger. The war between money and spirituality is as old as religion itself. Although money may come as a result of following your dreams, the pursuit of money for it's own sake almost always produces garbage. Witness the stream of big budget drivel that pours out of Hollywood. The reason for this is that those for whom the primary goal is money are not interested in anything else except as a means to wealth. Curiousity and imagination take time that they do not have; more to the point, they do not consider it time well spent. There is no obvious material benefit to it. Time is money.

Fundamentalism serves a particularly American need: a religion of convenience. American Christian fundamentalism proves quite pliable in the face of economic demands; far from sharing Jesus' suspicious of wealth, American Christians regard wealth as evidence of divine favour. The very rigidity of fundamentalism is it's strongest selling point. It is clearly defined, easy to grasp, and if not effortless, it at least requires little thought. It therefore confines itself quite comfortably into the time allocated for it, and provides no distractions within the workaday world. Fundamentalists do not daydream. To dream is to wander out of the script. And having little experience imagination, they do not recognize it when it happens. A person well acquainted with works of the imagination will recognize the voice of a character in his head as simply a product of his own mind. Many fundamentalists do not seem to understand this. They take as real the voice of God or Jesus as they imagine it, convinced not only that the voice is from outside, but that its pronouncements are gospel truth. This sounds like psychosis, but I have heard so many born-agains claim to have two-way conversations with Jesus that I can only assume that this is common amongst them. I've enjoyed having many two-way conversations with fictional characters too, but I've always known they were products of my imagination.

Herein lies the proof of the power of imagination: if it is ignored or denigrated, it will assert itself in a way that cannot be denied. I am reminded with a story told in the movie My Dinner with Andre: a mathematician who prides himself on having no fantasy life whatsoever meets a faun in the forest, and returns daily thereafter to converse with it. Apparently his dreams, frustrated by his attempt to ignore them, erupted into the only world he considered worthwhile. So instead of a daydream, he got stuck with a full blown delusion. It seems that the same thing is becoming common amongst religious believers. But while the mathematician can decide to stop meeting the faun if it suddenly turns weird, a Christian would feel compelled to do what ever Christ told him to do. Psychotics are notorious for doing what the voices tell them. If religious believers cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and feel compelled to act upon it, at what point does religious conviction become insanity?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Religion and Ethics

The most prominent argument in favour of religion is the claim that religion provides the basis for our system of ethics. Clerics and ministers are frequently paraded out for discussions on morality, and those who vote for politicians on faith related grounds consider religiosity to be proof of ethical sensibility. This belief is based upon two assumptions: that our ethics are based largely upon religious texts, and that the belief in the afterlife acts as an inhibition upon selfish acts and a spur towards moral behaviour. But if you consider seriously both the texts in question and the real consequences of belief in the afterlife, it becomes clear that at the very least, both can act as justification for even the most ethically bankrupt of moral positions.

Consider, for example, the Bible. Compiled and edited by the Council of Nicea, the same body which formulated the Nicean Creed, the Bible was essentially a work establishing the tenants and agenda of the ancient Church. This agenda can be seen in the laissez-faire attitude of the Catholic Church for Fascist and Neo-Fascist regimes: Mussolini, Franko, and, closer to home, Duplessis in the Canadian province of Quebec. This agenda was expressed succinctly by Pierre Trudeau and his allies against Duplessis: Power comes from Above. The position of the early Church, the Catholic Church, and indeed, of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, can be summarized in this statement. It is a profoundly anti-democratic idea--it means that the opinions and decisions of the populace carry no weight. This attitude made the strongholds of these churches susceptible to totalitarian rule. Far from being the opponent of Stalin, the Russian Orthodox Church prepared the ground for his rule, by encouraging a mood of political apathy amongst the people of Russia. As in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Quebec, the Russians accepted without question the dictates of their leaders. Believing they had no power, they gave it away.

This attitude is not only inherent in the Nicean Creed, but in the Bible itself. The Council of Nicea was governed by Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome. Traditionally, the Emperor had been declared a god. But if Constantine could not be a God, he could be the closest thing to God. But to do this, Jesus had to be taken out of the way. He had to become God himself--if a Judean peasant could be a great spiritual authority, then any man could question the dictates of political authority. This would not do. Jesus had to become the One Begotten Son of God, as was the ancient pagan custom of Roman and Hellenistic mythologies. This is heretical both to Judaism--and Christ was a Jew, above all else--and to Christianity. The Lord's Prayer begins with the words "Our Father," and Jesus called himself the Son of Man, not the Son of God.

And so, in the New Testament, Jesus becomes the supernatural hero, the Resurrected Son of God. Not the frail, fallible, man who pitted his own life against the odds, who died not knowing whether it would ever come to mean anything. The reality, that he died for a truth that he never knew anyone would ever appreciate, is trivialized by the myth that he went to his death a god, knowing that he would rise in triumph. A mere few hours of torment, and his return to supreme power is assured. For a god this is nothing. For a man this is everything. The power of faith is that a mere man could do this. The official lie was that only a god could.

And this lie is a discouragement of what Jesus himself said, that others greater than him would follow. Constantine could not allow this. That would be a challenge to his authority. And so, entrenched in the Bible itself, the Divine Right of Kings was born. To this day, Bishops govern by Divine Right, the equivalent of Kings within democratic societies, awaiting the day of their return to power. So too do the fundamentalist demagogues. In the theocracy they dream of, they will be the final arbiters of morality, untouchable by the concerns of mere citizens. Theocracies cannot be bothered with democracy. That is a notion of the enlightenment, the primary target of the religious right. Lurking within the Bible are the ethics of Roman Empire at its most decadent, when the democratic senate was reduced to a mere rubber stamp, and the people lulled into complacency by bread and circuses.

As for the afterlife, you must realise that evil men never consider themselves evil. Hitler himself believed that heaven lay a cyanide pill away. He expected a hero's welcome in heaven immediately after his death. He had, after all, killed all those evil jews. He was, in his own eyes, the hero, not the villain. Nor is he unique in this regard. Stalin, Ceausescu, Mao, Kim, Pol Pot, and Sadam Hussein all believed themselves to be heroes. So does Osama Bin Laden. Their protestations of innocence and heroism are not mere posturing--these people actually believe that they are what they say they are. To these people, the afterlife, should they believe in it, is a tremendous comfort and reassurance in times of difficulty. It gives them the resolve to stay the course, and pursue their genocidal goals. Only God can judge them, and they are convinced that God has already rendered his judgement. Prosecution is therefore not a concern. The worst that can happen is death, and heaven awaits them eagerly.

These people are morally insane. Much of their rational ability is intact. Far from giving them pause, the idea of the afterlife is a source of tremendous encouragement. The consequences of their actions in this life are of no concern. There is always an out. No need to compromise--if they lose, they still win. Such are the consequences of the belief in the afterlife. Of course, there are many people who believe in the afterlife who seriously consider that they might be doing wrong, that their actions might damn them. But these are precisely those people who have a strong moral sense. Even if they were atheists, these people would still be concerned with their own perception of themselves are ethical people. No one wants to believe that they are in the wrong. The genuinely evil are set apart by they ability to rationalize the extraordinary. For them, a belief in the afterlife will never be an obstacle, only an escape clause. It makes their evil easier, not harder.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Heirs of Christ

The New Testament was written about 800 years after the Old Testament. As was the Old Testament, this was a codification of ideas which had been expressed for the first time centuries earlier. Comparison between the ethical philosophy of Jesus and the ethical stance of most of the Old Testament makes it abundantly clear that the teachings of Jesus were a significant advancement and refinement on the previous tenants of Judaism. Nor was Jesus unique to his day; there were many sects at the time who embraced similar positions, most notably the Essenes. Jesus was typical of a new breed of lay preachers who sought to reform Judaism, and although Judaism rejected as idolatry the elevation of these preachers to any special status, their ideas did enter the mainstream. The spirituality of the Peoples of the Book (as Jews, Christians, and Muslims are called by Islamic scholars) is a work in progress--it must be understood in evolutionary terms, as opposed to triumphalist terms. Nothing is final. Refinements continue to this day, and must continue if we are to learn from past mistakes. Within the context of these religions, to do anything less is to permit human beings to claim a certainty that rightfully belongs only to God. This is the greatest of all mortal sins.

By this timeline--a testament every 800 years or so, we are at least a couple testaments short. Given the long dry trough represented by the fall of the Roman civilization and the dark ages, the third testament could be expected to be delayed until such a time that a sufficient prevalance of civilization, with its dividends of leisure and the accumulation and preservation of knowledge, could be reestablished. The ideas of third testament, then, could probably be considered to arrive at about the time of rennaisance, and carried through in part with the reformation, with codification occurring two centuries later in the form of the Enlightenment. This was the birth of the modern age. But the Enlightenment brought with it even stronger formulations of the prohibition on idolatry. Another testament was not possible, because the very idea of a text to be accepted on faith alone, or of anyone with the authority to write such a text, was cast into doubt. The Enlightenment introduced the free market of ideas, and made fair play the challenge of all interpretations of existing scriptures. The all-too-human character of any author was too easily discoverable; there would no longer be prophets who enjoyed the luxury of obscurity. The modern idea of fame was taking shape, and even the glamour of royalty was not immune to the dark side of fame, which we now see in tabloid rags. Achievement brings fame, fame invites attention, attention leads to scrutiny and judgement. History was now written in real time. You could expect your epitaph to be written before your body was cold.

Nevertheless, the legitimate heirs of Christ can be found amongst the participants of the Enlightenment. That they often stood outside and against the church is to be expected. Christ met his end in part at the hands of over-zealous priests. Heretic is just another name for a voice crying out in the wilderness. Left to its own devices, no church would ever reform. I have already noted that the Enlightenment refined and strengthened the concept of idolatry. It also introduced an idea of truth more demanding than any that had come before, debunking claims of authority in favour of an empirical standard that was universally applicable. Furthermore, the Enlightenment encouraged a promise inherent in the the teachings of Christ but denied by the imperial inclinations of the church: the invitation to follow in Jesus' footsteps rather than to worship him as a distant celestial figure.

Most significant, though, were the ethical advances. The ideals of "Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood!" may not have been realized in the French revolution, but they continue to echo to this day, with few exceptions, to good effect. Torture and slavery, common before the Enlightenment, are now universally outlawed in the West. Equality, while not a reality (and perhaps not even a possibility) in economic terms, is considered the ideal before the law. Jesus' emphasis on love continues to ring throughout the culture as the ideal in human relations. But perhaps the biggest surprise has been the spread of freedom and the sheer number of benefits that this freedom has wrought. Indeed, freedom itself may prove to be the ultimate measure of civilization, as it both relies upon and encourages self-discipline in ordinary citizens. Freedom in the West has transformed it into an economic, cultural, and scientific dynamo the like of which the world has never seen. It is not only desirable as an end in itself, but as a necessary precondition to the discovery and spread of knowledge. Freedom is power--it releases creativity, and encourages personal involvement and investment in the political and economic process, thereby encouraging responsibility, the goal of all moral systems.

The Bible was compiled at the Council of Nicea, also the authors of the Nicean Creed, the cornerstone of Catholic Theology. Inherent in Catholic Theology is the notion that power comes from above. This is made clear by persistent support of Fascism by the Catholic Church before and even after WWII; few reckonings of Fascist dictatorships include the reign of Maurice Duplessis in the province of Quebec, but this too was a Fascist stronghold, aided and abetted by the Church. The ideology of the early Church was inherently anti-democratic. To see this, consider the position of Christ in the Christian pantheon. If Christ was merely a man with a strong spiritual bearing, any man of any social stature could challenge the powers that be. This was not acceptable for Emperor Constantine. If he could not be a god, then he could be the closest thing to God. And so, in the tradition of Ancient Paganism, Jesus was made the son of a god, and not just any god, but the One True God, below which stood the Kings and Bishops, and below them, the people. To the Jews, one of which was Christ himself, this was an abomination. It holds no spiritual pedigree, but though they balk at the doctrine of Papal Infallibility (Why? The pedigree of the Bible is derived from this!) even Protestant denominations insist upon the infallibility of the Council of Nicea, by insisting upon the infallibility of the Bible itself. For it was the Council of Nicea that whittled twenty gospels down to a mere four, and determined what the content of those four would be. Inherent within the Bible itself are the totalitarian ambitions of Constantine and the Council of Nicea. This is the greatest threat to democracy in the West today, and yet 80% of Americans have given witless assent to it.

The latest testament lies in the efforts of scientists. Within the scientific paradigm, there is no escape from the truth. It cannot be bribed, negotiated, or tricked. Science pays obedience to the evidence to an extent that the ancient prophets could only have dreamed of. What you want to believe is of no consequence. If God is, as is stated in the Bible, "I Am Who Am," then God is reality itself. The Jews have taken this as a given, and it has served them so well that fools all over the world accuse them of having an unfair advantage. Science serves and obeys reality. Whoever denies science out of personal fiat denies God. Theories may be questioned--if there is sufficient evidence, and no, there is absolutely no evidence for Intelligent Design. ID is a lie, and the servants of Satan are quite correctly called "People of the Lie." Satan isn't real; the Father of Lies is a lie himself, but there are no shortage of people eager to serve lies, if they believe they can turn the lies to serve themselves in turn.

Science does not deny wonder, poetry, inspiration, beauty, or art. Indeed, science affirms and enhances all these, and the bastardized style of religion proffered in the mega-churches scarcely pays lip service to them, if even that. The more I know about evolution, cosmology, neurobiology, and all the sciences, the greater my wonder at the world becomes. Don't try to sell me on the wonders of being a religious believer. I've been a religious believer, but in retrospect, the experience of the world as a believer seems trite and banal compared to seeing the world through informed eyes. Superstition is no substitute for knowledge. It's the difference between a MacDonalds Happy Meal and a gourmet filet mignon.

"When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things." There is such a thing as learning and progress. Fundamentalists deny this; they fail to understand that spirituality evolves, that the god that Abraham ascended the mountain with was not the same God he came down with. Moloch demanded the blood sacrifice of children; Jehovah did not. But Jehovah too was a primitive god. Jesus said that others would come who would be greater than he. Israel means "He who struggles with God and wins." To struggle with God and win means that you change, and God changes. What you believe God to be says nothing about God, but much about you. It depicts in clear terms what you would be like if you had power. To idolize a vision of God that is vain, jealous, and angry is to place personal fault beyond question. It is a refusal to learn, to challenge your own limitations and grow. It is a pact with darkness.

Christianity has moved on. Anyone who would claim to be a Christian must move on with it. There is no going back. Fundamentalism is a lie.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What I Believe

My sister Ruth has been reading this blog and she remarked that some of the posts here mostly dwelt on the negative--the problems of religion, utopias, political and ethical opinions, and so on. That's about what I don't believe in. This is about what I do believe in.

1. The mystical experience of communion with all living things is real. It is our sense of separateness that is the illusion. This illusion is fostered by the ego, a mental construct, a form of personal idolatry, the I that makes everything else Other. Hatred is a byproduct of this illusion. This includes self-hatred, which is actually based upon negative aspects of the ego that we have mistaken for ourselves.

2. Love is a simple recognition of the social nature of human beings, that we live by mutual support and cooperation, and that we live better the stronger that mutual support becomes. Competition only works within narrow prescribed limits within a framework of cooperation, and only when it serves to increase cooperation overall.

3. We do not persist in any self-aware form after we die. Any form of eternal existence as ourselves would become hell. The idea of the afterlife is only tolerable because we believe that we will meet those we love there, because it is other people who draw us out of ourselves. But eventually, even this would not be enough. If we persist in any form, it is as a droplet of water returned to the ocean that loses itself in the reunion. Whatever else may happen, 'I' will end. This is all the time you get. Use it well.

4. We continue in the world after death by becoming a part of those who love us. Mannerisms, ideas, memories, quirks, beliefs, all scatter into the world, to continue on, but without a name attached. We emulate what we admire, and try not to emulate what we despise. In this way what is good lives on.

5. The truth survives, and is recognized as such by most people when they hear it. A lie that is not rejected will cripple or even kill the person or society that believes it. Thus, the truth will win out, either in an individual mind exposed to the free market of ideas, or in a Darwinian test of fitness. Learn or die--it has ever been thus. This is the only real progress.

6. Most of the prophets, saints, and spiritual founders cited by religions knew what they were talking about. Their domain of expertise was the human heart and the relationships between people. On matters concerning history or the physical world they knew little, and staked no claims in these areas. Most of the clergy that followed them have no idea what they are talking about. In their hands the words of the prophets become a grey goo of hackneyed phrases, vacant sentiments, and tired superstitions, boiled and hashed to the point where it offers no flavour and little nutrition.

7. The life of the mind is a kingdom not of this world, treasure that thieves cannot steal. It is also a means of acquisition without consumption, accumulation without burden, and enjoyment without expense. Prophets and scholars have little money because they can't be bothered with it; they are already rich. Material wealth is little more than a distraction from true wealth.

8. The spiritual emerges from the physical but cannot be reduced to it. Reductionism of this type loses too much essential information--descriptions of neurological events do not capture the personal subjective experience of those events. The leap in complexity from basic physical structure to the phenomena of mind marks a qualitative difference, not just a quantitative difference. There will always be room for poetry, art, and music.

9. Real faith is not rote belief in articles of doctrine. These are mere superstitions. Real faith amounts to optimism, which, though keenly aware of the risks and disappointments of life, refuses to stop trying. This is faith in ourselves, in others, and in our ability to face the world together. Faith, hope, and charity are simply different aspects of the same thing.

10. There is no personal God or supernatual entity who watches over us. We will stand or fall on our own merits, and the merits of our communities, for which we share responsibility. This is justice. To ask any more is ungrateful and presumptuous.

11. Mercy is breathing. Earth is speck of living dust in a vast lethal void, the only life sustaining planet that we know of. Know how improbable you are, and be satisfied with life itself--even this is an extremely rare gift.

12. We do not own this world, nor anything on it. We did not make it, and we cannot replace it. We are, at most, tenants, who have the use of it for a short time. It belongs to everything that lives on it, past, present, and future. By harming it, we betray the trust of our ancestors, and the hopes of our children. And our children will despise us for it, and we will be remembered as selfish fools--if there is anyone left to remember us.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Conspiracy Theorist

Conspiracy theorists look for evidence of concerted, deliberate, and often grandiose schemes of malevolent intent. The primary conviction of the conspiracy theorist is that those in power have done what they've done with the specific intent of causing harm to others for their own benefit. There are no coincidences or misfortunes, only cabals who operate in the shadows, successfully and secretly plotting the ruin of others, while remaining in power themselves, apparently for generations. Their plots are shrewdly calculated and wildly successful. They are the very model of competence.

Robert Heinlein's Jubal Hershaw said "Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence." I like this one so much I call in Heinlein's Razor. While there is no shortage of evil, destructive people in the world who do harm by intent, the vast majority of them are marginalized--small time brutes who harm the few within their reach. Psychopaths who do rise to positions of power tend to lay waste to everything and everyone around them; they bankrupt companies, destroy their own families, and in positions of political influence, lead their peoples to ruin. In short, they are not well adapted. Nearly all psychopaths end up murdered, executed, or imprisoned. They soil their own nests. They do not successfully work for their own benefit. Eventually even their followers turn on them. Stalin was poisoned, and Hitler's fall was inevitable before he ever took power; his best men tried to blow him up. The question is how many people the psychopath can take down with him.

Narcissists have a similar personality, but they at least usually have a vision, which may inspire others in the same direction. The destructiveness is harnessed to a purpose, rather than being cruelty for its own sake. Narcissists can rise to prominent positions, they are often charming in their own way, but their abuse of others usually catches up with them and costs them. They become targets. Nobody roots for them, and at the first sign of weakness the knives come out. The more prominent they become, the more enemies they make. If a narcissist is brilliant, others may put up with him, but few will ever like him. A narcissist must be competent in his position to survive. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Bill Clinton are examples of narcissists.

The vast majority of misfortune in the world is caused by people lower down the scale, those who have fixated ideas, some narcissitic tendencies, but enough of a human touch that their continued company is tolerable to others. They may not have the vision thing, but they usually have strong beliefs and a high opinion of their own abilities. The worst thing about incompetents is that they rarely know they are incompetent. As wrong as their decisions may be, they are genuinely convinced that if they stick to them, it will all work out for the best.

Incompetents can rise to power by being competent in another area whose expertise does not apply to their new position. Sometimes there is no real competence at all; the person is just good at looking the part (Ronald Reagan and George Bush come to mind here.) Most do have an area of competence, but one that has little relevance to the position. They have risen to their level of incompetence. Successful businessmen may assume powerful positions in government, unaware that the business of government is not like private enterprise--the point is not to maximize profit but to maximize benefit. Businesses exist to serve themselves, serving the customer only as a means to this end. Government exists to serve the citizens, and its own welfare is secondary to this. The newly appointed or elected businessman may attempt the same strategies in their new position that worked so well before, forgetting that what they did before was primarily aimed at enriching themselves. Old habits die hard. And of course, the people they trust are those like themselves, whom they have had dealings with before, but who are also out for their own interests. But worst of all, they carry with them whatever rationalizations they used to excuse their own self-seeking natures in their previous occupation. They earnestly believe that what they are doing is right, and are genuinely surprised and indignant when they are caught with their hand in the till. In part, it is this very ingenuousness which protects them. They do not behave like guilty men. And others who have made the same rationalizations will rally to their aid, rather than accept a challenge to the beliefs that allow them to live comfortably with themselves.

None of this, of course, is an excuse. We are every bit as guilty for the lies we tell ourselves as for the lies we tell others; more so, in fact, because these lies, once accepted, allow us to be glib when we repeat them to others. Morally, there seems to be little distinction, but there is an important distinction between the motivations of the incompetent and those of a true villain. The villain knows what he's doing. The incompetent doesn't. This means that they are two very different animals, and the approach that works best on one will have disastrous consequences when applied to the other.

A villain must be opposed by force. Force is his native tongue and the only language that he understands. For the villain, mercy is weakness, so to show him mercy is to invite disdain and cruel reprisals. You must literally take up arms against him. Terrorists do what they do because they believe that the world is ruled by villains; the terrorists who threaten us now believe that the world is run by the ultimate villain, Satan himself, and that everyone outside of their narrow belief system serve Satan and are therefore villains themselves.

The incompetent, and those who share his beliefs, will be surprised by uses of force against him and will consider them completely unjustified. Far from weakening him, the attacks will grant him a position of undue moral authority. That which does not kill him will make him stronger, but this is of no benefit to anyone; he is still incompetent, and his actions may still bring about disaster. The use of force against him will tarnish his opponents and strengthen his support. Attacks on a villain may serve as a call to action to others; attacks on an incompetent will rally people to his cause instead. Even due process of law and a just sentence may be perceived as too harsh, though this will be much harder for his supporters to argue. The only effective means of dealing with an incompetent is to prove his incompetence. Then his support will dry up.

Conspiracy theorists mistake incompetence for villainy. Although their criticisms of certain policies and practices may have merit, the shrillness of those criticisms renders the conspiracy theorist politically irrelevant. He is consigned to the fringe, a lunatic, because his attacks are ad hominem and his evidence post hoc. Conspiracy theorists leap from action to events which follow decades or even centuries later with the assumption that this was precisely what was planned, and that no other factors came into play. Anachronisms are common; the conspirators, even those of centuries long past, are believed to have known everything about the world that we do. Perfect knowledge and foreknowledge are then used to establish clear intent--all of our problems were deliberately caused. The conspiracy theorist attributes to his opponents a measure of diabolical intent, prescience, and power that rings patently false when ascribed to any human being or party of human beings, no matter how clever.

The motivation behind conspiracy theories is essentially religious. It seems that it is more comfortable to believe in an evil power running the world than that there is no one in control. The existence of the Devil would at least promise the possibility of God. If someone evil can cause all this harm, then maybe someone good can fix it all--conspiracy theorists also have a hankering for extreme views on human potential and a lot of woo-woo science. And if the man at the wheel is evil, the bus may be hell, but at least he won't crash it--that would kill him too.

But what if the man at the wheel doesn't know how to drive? What if he's roaring drunk, thinks he's in top form, and he's going to take you with him over the next cliff. If the Illuminati are running the world and raking in the cash, then at least there's the opportunity to escape the deluge by becoming rich or powerful, or by overthrowing them and taking control. Surely they have at least kept a place where they will be safe. But what if the people in charge really don't know know what's going on, what if they really don't even know how to serve their own best interests, and--even worse--you don't know any better than they do? If there are no illuminati, then all we really have are a lot of imperfect, fallible people to run the show, and our problems are the result of that.

There is no devil. The messiah is not coming. It's all up to you.

Scary thought, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Religion and Spirituality

A distinction must be made between religion and spirituality, because while religion poses some rather severe problems in the modern world, spirituality does not. The two are usually lumped together, thereby allowing generalizations about one to be applied to another. In fact, while religion and spirituality may often be found in close proximity with each other, each has certain features not necessary to the practice of the other. You can have religion without spirituality, and spirituality without religion.

Religion is primarily a system of beliefs concerning physical and metaphysical reality, delineating the sacred and the profane. These beliefs are transmitted orally or in writing; experience and practice are not essential components, and may be entirely absent in followers who nevertheless profess profound belief. Scripture and its interpretation by the clergy is the final arbiter. Correctness in religion can only be judged by comparison to external sources. Personal experience is highly suspect--due to its occult nature, it may even be delusional (religion's battle with the occult stems from the fact that it is itself a species of the occult.) The content, therefore, is cognitive and emotional, but only the cognitive content (belief) is approached in a systematic manner. It's main concern is to make truth claims about the world, even if the subject of those claims is hidden or shrouded in mystery. This is why religion may find itself in an adversarial relationship with science.

The sacred usually includes certain geographic locations, historical persons, texts, rituals, modes of dress, dietary habits, and the items used in these rituals. Although some of these may have had a practical purpose in the past (the avoidance of pork in desert religions is an example; pork spoiled quickly and dangerously in the desert heat), their continued persistence is traditional and fetishistic. This ritualistic behaviour seems eccentric or even foolish to those not of the faith. It is likely that it serves mostly to ensure a high level of commitment within the religious community and distinguish believers from non-believers. Seen in this light, the battles between various sects over minor details of conformity becomes understandable--these details exist precisely for the purpose of encouraging conformity.

There is usually an ethical system attached to the religion, but this ethical system is often simply an encouragement of adherance to the tenants of the faith: professions of faith may be granted more importance than ethical acts towards others. In a choice between adherance to articles of the faith and ethical behaviour towards others, faith may take higher priority. Ethical obligations usually follow tribal lines (towards fellow adherants.) In extreme cases, the ethical component may be dropped entirely, but this does not mean that belief system has been abandoned. Extremist sects merely alter the belief system, or may return to an earlier, more primitive version. Whatever else a religious fanatic may be, he is still slavishly devoted to his faith. Although touted as the most important aspect of the faith, the moral system is subject to intepretation, and is negotiable, and ultimately, dispensable.

Spirituality is primarily a system of practice and experience. Both cognitive and emotional elements are approached in a systematic manner. A system of beliefs may be present but the tradition can operate without them. There is no direct conflict between spirituality and science. The main goal is the attainment of happiness and well-being through an experience of communion with all of reality. The greatest obstacle to be overcome is our own obsession with self. The practice to attain this cannot be taught without considering relations with others, since the relatedness of self and other lies at the very heart of spirituality. Love and happiness require each other. An ethical system is therefore an integral part of the practice, and cannot be discarded without abandoning the practice entirely. If the ethical component is absent, claims to spirituality are a sham.

Rituals, when found in spiritual traditions, serve a practical purpose, and may be dropped if that purpose is not served, or if no purpose can be found for them. Texts may be studied, but only under the proviso that they are by nature flawed and incomplete--the spiritual experience cannot be put into words. Undue emphasis placed on any text or teaching is seen as an obstacle. The embodiment of the practice is the accomplished practitioner--but no teacher may become a target of worship and blind obedience. As Gautama Buddha said, "If you meet the buddha on the road, kill him!" External control is also an obstacle to enlightenment. Gurus and Messiahs maintain their flocks in a state of perpetual childhood. The very word flock is illustrative of the messianic attitude towards followers; they are sheep, to be herded, sheared, and slaughtered. The goal of spirituality is not to create followers, or to follow a leader, but to follow a path and help others who are willing to do the same. Proselytizing is considered somewhat vulgar and a symptom of arrogance.

The confusion between the two exists largely because many religious figures were in fact spiritual practitioners, who were later elevated to heroic or divine status in a religious pantheon. Many quotations from these figures make little sense in a religious context but perfect sense in a spiritual context. Spiritual traditions exist within religious traditions, but are kept quiet through constant censure. Mystics and monks of various religions will understand and agree with each other, but clerics and lay believers will fight tooth and nail. The truth is always and everywhere the same, but religion is obsessed with peripheral details, and the devil is in the details. Most religious believers are like sports fans who collect statistics and anecdotes, but have little idea what it is like to play the game.

The incorporation of spiritual figures into a religion is a matter of cooption and neutralization. Cooption prevents a schism from forming around the figure, and brings those who respect the spiritual figure into the fold. By elevating the spiritual figure to the level of hero or deity, the person in question is placed beyond the reach and emulation of the ordinary believer. His influence is limited to those sources controlled by the priesthood. One of the most blatant examples I found in a Catholic Bible, in a footnote for Jesus' words "Heaven is within you." At the bottom of the page was the explanation "ie., it is within your grasp, it is Jesus." The source of spirituality is externalized and removed to a distant pedestal, where the Church can charge admission. There is no greater embarrasment for a religion than a living prophet. A living prophet will contradict the clergy, and people will realize that he knows what he's talking about. Religion prefers its prophets dead, stuffed, and mounted as high as they can place them.

Religion is not spirituality. It is the dead husk of spirituality.

Saturday, August 27, 2005


I came across an article on Arts and Letters Daily about the rise of religion which I found all the more depressing because I think it may be true. Even in the most secular of societies there are a growing number of people seeking refuge in that old time religion. Something strange is happening to drive back the tide of secularism, and I think I know what it is. It has to do with utopian visions--that is, perfect worlds offered up with no viable or visible means of achieving them.

Marcus Aurelius opposed Christianity because he favoured Stoicism, but Christianity had a selling point that gave it the edge: it promised the afterlife. Christianity eventually won. Apparently virtue and self-discipline are not enough. People want a bright light at the end of the tunnel, a promised land. And this promised land can take many forms.

Christianity and Islam offer the most opulent of promised lands; a paradise beyond the vicissitudes of the world, where one is preserved for all time. According to Islam, one is preserved in a state of sensual largesse, with a ready compliment of willing sexual slaves and an endless supply of delicious foods. Apparently, all the desire that are to be denied in this world are to be fulfilled in the next. This is not materialism denied, merely materialism delayed. For the Christian the reward is more dubious, though it is argued to be more spiritual. One may look forward to an eternity of the presence and eternal praise of God. But it is never adequately explained why an eternity of membership in some sort of celestial choir, singing the praises of an apparently narcissistic diety, is the pinnacle of happiness. As the leading Heather in the movie Heathers complains, having been dead only a short while, "If I have to sing Cum By Ya one more time, I will throw up." One man's heaven is another man's hell. The primary consolation seems to be that the Christian will get to gloat over the fate of the non-Christian, content in the knowledge that the unbeliever will suffer a fate far worse. Revenge may be sweet, but this flies in the face of core of Jesus' teachings. In both of these afterlives, the highest good is the preservation of the individual ego. You may surrender, submit, and sacrifice as much as you like, but in the end, you'll get your way, and all the pleasures you've renounced. The payoff is an orgy of egotism. I suspect that the first Christians, and Jesus himself, would be appalled by this, and would likely have renounced the doctrine of the afterlife altogether if confronted with it in this form.

These utopias also fall prey to what Tolkien found evident in the immortality of his elves--an eternity spent chained to one's own personal limitations and the weight of past mistakes. I have always wondered why Tolkien did not realize that the fate of his elves would be shared by mortals as well, trapped in an afterlife that was largely a continuation of their own limited identity. Had the afterlife promised a release from one's own ego by having it merged with the consciousness of the divine, like a drop of water returned to the ocean, this objection might be overcome. But I suspect that this anihilation of self would be as terrifying to most believers as the fires of hell. They may want some sort of communion with God, but only on their own terms.

The rise of secularism came with the promise of secular utopias. The most obvious of these were the political utopias promised by Naziism and Communism; the Thousand Year Reich and the worker's paradise. Both of these had limited appeal and a limited base, and were known to be unworkeable long before their final collapse. The most popular secular utopia in the west was progress, the gleaming world of convenience and wealth promised in the middle of the 20th century. You can see this in The Jetsons, where everyone was supposed to drive hover cars and own a robot that would do all the housework, while we lived in leisure. This hit a snag in environmentalism and the energy crisis, when the bills of our increasingly profligate lifestyles came due. It became clear that there were limits to growth, that we simply did not have enough resources to sustain endless consumption. But this utopia shares a common trait with the heavenly utopias: the promise of infinite material reward. It is a materialistic answer to a spiritual question. It it like trying to assuage one's hunger by eating rocks. But the secular utopias have failed because they are subject to falsification, unlike the religious utopias, which float free in the clouds, and whose existence and limitations are beyond the reach of proper scrutiny. This goes a long way to explaining the resurgance of religious faith.

Utopias of more limited appeal have continued to appear. I suspect that Star Trek gained its popularity, not because it was a prime example of great science fiction (it wasn't,) but because it provided a promise of a utopian future without racism, sexism, proverty, or war amongst mankind, a universe in which human beings had overcome the problems of our present and soared amongst the stars like gods. The very idea that we would be alive and well five hundred years from now was reassuring. Political utopias continue to abound, now largely from the right rather than the left; the promised land will now come through the invisible hand of the market, or through the reduction of government, or through the return of traditional values. Never mind that the market is a blind machine insensitive to many real human needs, that a weak government simply opens the field to new forms of government not subject to democratic control (the ability of Wal Mart, for example, to dictate what is available for people to read and hear,) or that traditional values led us to where we are now, and were instrumental in creating many of our existing problems. Cults continue to abound, promising a glorious future if only we can convert enough people. And there is the individual utopia, where with enough money, power, or fame, one can move beyond the irritants of everyday life to a promised land of ease and luxury. This is the utopia inherent in the American Dream.

What these utopias promise is a magical way to bypass the messy business of personal responsibility in order to achieve a perfect world. Totalitarian utopias (including cults and old school political ideologies) are offered with the claim that you don't have to do anything, you only have to give your leaders the power to do it. Religious utopias leave it all to God. Libertarian utopias promise that the system will provide, if only it is not interfered with. The individual utopia requires effort, but only in serving one's own self interest; being a psychopath is not a problem as long as one is a successful psychopath. Personal success may come at a cost to others that outweighs the benefit to you, but this is not your responsibility. Pursuit of other utopias results in the damage caused by sins of omission, but the search for a personal utopia may actively cause harm.

Real progress towards a better world is a slow and arduous journey, in which small gains are made, carefully checked to see whether they really are gains, and then firmly established before going on to the next task. It requires a mastery of the real complexities involved, but this in turn require cooperation and individual competence. The last renaissance man died in the renaissance. Mastery of any domain of knowledge requires specialization, and to gain an understanding of any situation, these specialists must convey their knowledge, or lack therof, honestly and without a destructive measure of self interest. Effecting change requires efforts at all levels of society, and a genuine attempt to understand the consequences of ones own actions. And the strictly materialistic goals enshrined in nearly all utopias (including the religious ones) must be abandoned.

Perhaps the ideal of broad personal responsibility is itself utopian. But without it, nothing will improve. The result may not be a perfect world, but it may be a better world.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Reciprocity and World Making

Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, writes about an ethical dilemma. We would consider torture wrong under any circumstances. But consider this situation: a terrorist that you have captured boasts that he has placed a nuclear bomb somewhere in the a large population area. It will go off in 24 hours. Would torturing him to find out where he placed the bomb be wrong?

Against this, he compares the use of bombs used on military targets near civilian populations. We drop these bombs, and expect some collateral damage. This inflicts suffering on innocent people equal or greater than the suffering inflicted in torture. Yet we are willing to accept this outcome. Harris believes that this is because we don't directly experience the suffering we cause. He mentions a Russian soldier who said that shooting a man at point blank range was terrible, but killing en masse, in combat, was actually fun.

But in the case of the terrorist, I would offer this analysis. The terrorist has abandoned the social contract by which we limit the harm done to others by our actions--indeed, he has abondoned all social contracts. His target is nothing less than civilization itself. He intends to cut the ties that bind societies together, to wreak havoc and chaos wherever he can. He has abandoned all social contracts; or, he has entered a new one, in which there are no restrictions. And so, there should be no restrictions in dealing with him.

The answer to this would be that we should not sink to his level in dealing with him. But think about war. Do we not sink to our enemy's level in accepting the contract of war? Because it is a contract, as the Geneva Convention demonstrates. And yet, we don't flinch from this contract when faced with a military threat. Under this contract, killing is not only permitted, it is actually celebrated.

Think about something closer to home. You go to a restaurant with someone. They eat a meal, and then demand that you pay for it. Naturally, you get angry, and insist that they pay for their own meal. This anger and reaction would not be justified without the breach in ethical behaviour. It would be inappropriate to eye someone suspiciously and insist that they pay for their meal if they haven't given you cause to believe that they won't. You have accepted the modified social contract, because the normal one has been breached. This is reciprocity. This is how we learn and correct aberrant behaviour. This is everyday justice.

Beliefs and actions shape the world around us. In nearly all formulations of the Golden Rule, there is an element of contagion. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" carries the notion of reciprocity--there is an unspoken expectation (thought not a guarantee) that others will respond in kind. Kant's categorical imperative is even clearer: "Act only by that maxim whereby you could will it to be a universal maxim." Inherent in this is a form of world making, the creation of a social contract of mutual respect and fair play. If we are conscious of the effects of our actions, we attempt, through ethical action, to create the world we want to live in. This is also expressed in the idea of paying it forward--good deeds are propogated through others, and shift the world towards a better state of affairs. And by reciprocity, we are able to live, to some extent, in the world we seek to create.

Now consider what kind of world the terrorist is attempting to create: hell on earth. He is attempting to disrupt all social bonds, sow discord and mistrust at every level. He is trying to unravel the social fabric and bring about a state of universal warfare, bringing social, economic, and political ruin, with a resultant list of casualties that far outstrips the casualties he inflicts with his act of terrorism. This is the world he seeks to create, and this is the world which he has volunteered, by his actions, to live in. The terrorist has volunteered to sit in the iron throne. He has asked to be tortured. By the principle of reciprocity, we owe this to him. Or, at the very least, we have to show him the abyss he is opening under his own feet. Perhaps a glimpse of this moral black hole will achieve more than torture itself will. He will never learn unless he can see where his actions are leading. But we also owe it to him to warn him and others, in advance, of where his actions are leading.

Note that this does not excuse torture of captives suspected of terrorism. This is a preemptive breach of the social contract. Until a fairly strong proof of guilt is established, this encourages a reciprocity with the act of torture as the originating point of a negative chain of tit-for-tat. In other words, it provides a source of justification for potential terrorists. The torture of innocents as part of a war on terrorism amounts to giving aid and comfort to the enemy. In this case, the defenders of civilization are themselves breaching the wall of civility, exposing a weakness to their enemies.

In this light, it is easy to understand why terrorists are suicidal. They have no desire to live in the world that will result if they suceed. Nor, indeed, do they wish to live in the world as it is. As my wife Debbie pointed out, the terrorist is attempting to create hell on earth because he already believes that earth is hell. He believes that the Devil rules the world. As Dostoyevsky said, if there is no God, all is permitted. But if the Devil is seen to hold sway over the world, God is completely eclipsed and utterly absent. God here can simply stand for the belief that there is something good in the world worth saving, the Devil for the degree to which the world is corrupt and worthless. Substitute for God and the Devil the utopia and bane of any political or conspiracy theory, and you can see where supposedly secular terrorist groups are coming from. The configuration is the same, and the result is the same. No bounds need be respected in dealing with others, nothing is to be spared, all is to be destroyed and swept away.

The most frightening statistic about the religious right is that 65% of Americans believe in Satan. The Left Behind series clearly illustrates that Christians who read these books consider the rest of the world to be the province of the Devil, to be destroyed and swept away. If they suffer a dramatic setback, quashing their belief that God will intervene and rapture them away from all harm, what happens then? An America convinced that the world has gone to hell, armed with a nuclear arsenal, may decide to send it to hell, hoping to be raptured up in the mushroom clouds.

Believe strongly enough in the Devil, and you become him.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Egotism of Triumphalism

One of the things I've noticed about career alcoholics (people who have been drinking steadily for decades) is that, if you argue a point with them, they will refuse to see your point. Then, sometime later, they will come back and restate the idea as their own. If you mention that you had already argued for it, they will insist that they taught it to you. Apparently, Steve Jobs does the same thing. He will argue against something, and then come back and say "I have a great idea..." and then repeat your own idea back to you. If you repeat their own words back to these people, they will deny they said them. If you prove that they said otherwise, they will again reverse their position, rather than admit they were wrong.

Religions do the same thing. Organized religion always fights a rear action against the advance of civilization. Religions have sided with the aristocracy against democracy, the workshop owners against children, slave owners against the slaves, Nazis against the Jews, superstition against science, and so on. But later, all of the opposite positions are reclaimed as achievements of religion. Like any complete egotist, triumphalist religions can never admit that they are wrong, that there was something that they didn't know. They can only assimilate an idea if they believe they thought of it. But since the scriptures are written down, we have a record of what was actually claimed. This, combined with the egotism of triumphalism, is a major obstacle to learning in any devout follower.

Hindus are now claiming that their religion prefigured science from the beginning. Muslims claim the golden age of Islam as a natural outgrowth of their faith, rather than what it was--a relaxation of rigid orthodoxy and a willingness to embrace outside influences. And the proponents of Intelligent Design wish to claim that science supports creationist views, when it does nothing of the sort. The first step in learning is to admit that there is something that you don't know, or that something you believed is wrong. But if you insist that you had all the answers centuries or millenia ago, you can't do either. The real motive behind this is narcissistic egotism--pure, undiluted and unrepentant pride.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Culture of Multiculturalism

A few years back during the first season of Babylon 5, one of the episodes depicted each of the major alien races on the station inviting others to witness some cultural or religious event that defined the dominant culture of their world. When at last it came to the humans' turn, the captain introduced his alien guests to a row of representatives of all of the major religions on earth. The message was that there was no dominant culture or religion. But as my friend Pat pointed out, there was--the culture of the captain, who was able to arrange all of those believers in a line, like voices in a choir.

This is the culture of multiculturalism. It's premises, briefly stated, are as follows:
  1. You may believe anything you like, provided that you accept that your beliefs may be wrong.
  2. Rational discourse based upon solid evidence shall be the sole mode of discourse in the establishment of the truth. Anything outside this is mere opinion. You may not dictate to others what they must believe, nor employ force to spread your beliefs.
  3. You may choose to partake in the arts and customs of any culture within the limitations laid out by the law, but you have no power to force anyone else to do the same.
  4. No governmental agency may act to encourage or discourage any religious belief or lack thereof.
Multiculturalism has been represented as a form of cultural relativism--a wishy washy, non-commital stance meant to appease . In fact, it is itself a very strong position regarding truth and belief. This distinction can be observed in the pursuit of science and the procedures of our courts. Truth is arrived at by the rational empirical method, sound reasoning based upon verified evidence. Truth must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. Religious belief is tolerated because it cannot be proven, or, strictly speaking, disproven. No religion can be favoured in law--none of them can present a solid case, nor will any admit that any body of evidence is sufficient to disqualify it. It has no evidence to support it, and dodges all attempts to falsify it. We must agree to disagree. To do otherwise would be to enshrine mere whim as law, the tyranny of popular opinion. The first step in establishing a state religion is to put God into the law, because it requires the courts to define God. The tolerance of the law ends when extremist thought becomes extremist action. You can think whatever you like, but you can't do whatever you like, nor can you encourage others to break the law.

This position is the high water mark of human civilization. By extension, it might be better if we abolished religion altogether. It is, after all, not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and encourages a great deal of muddy, wishful, magical thinking, not to mention some extremely dangerous irrational behaviour. The ethical component so often touted as the primary incentive to preserve religion is a cunard. Religion is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for moral behaviour, and it encourages as many sins as it does virtues. But it is foolish to insist on this position, simply because religion is encouraged and supported by a host of emotional motives and cognitive disfunctions that are apparently endemic to the human mind. I've prepared a list of these, but they are too many to go into here. Suffice it to say that it takes more effort and dedication than most people are willing to spend to rid themselves of it, and even most atheists have arrived at their position without much thought. Religion is not going to go away.

At the same time, the essentially secular attitude upon which multiculturalism is based can, should, and will defend itself against all challengers. These challengers will espouse some form of orthodoxy, whether religious or secular. Political correctness in all its variations are as much a form of orthodoxy as Christianity or Islam; the views of a confirmed Marxist or free market proponent will often rival the staunchest fundamentalist for pigheaded rigidity. Even postmodernism is a form of orthodoxy; defending its positive assertions with the sophistry of relativism, postmodernists dodge counterarguments by denying all truth, only to sneak back and try to establish their own opinions as the final word.

Multiculturalism amounts to the admission that you can't control what people think, nor should you try. It's a broader form of a tolerance for eccentricity. The tolerance ends, though, when it is abused and taken for weakness, when the broad social contract that underlies it is ignored or exploited. Then we remember why we chose this ironic attitude towards beliefs of all kinds. Our own history demonstrates how, given the chance, religion becomes tyranny. We may not be able to get rid of it, but at least we can prevent it from taking over.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

On Faith and Love

I've written before that faith has little to do with a belief in unverifiable tenants, in so called "articles of faith', but is instead an essentially optimistic approach to life and other human beings. Rote beliefs in metaphysical or magical propositions are no more than mere superstition, and have little influence on practical considerations. Belief in the afterlife is as likely to encourage the acts of the suicide bomber as it is to encourage altruistic behaviour. Stubborn adherance to the superstition of creationism says little about the ethical character of the believer beyond a tendancy to willful ignorance, itself a major character flaw. Indeed, M. Scott Peck, in People of the Lie, attributes evil to willful ignorance. And unquestioning adherance to the literal word of any scripture is at best ethically neutral. These same works have inspired acts ranging from the selfless devotion of Mother Theresa to the homicidal manias of Charlie Manson. The interpretation of these works says much more, since people will find there what they bring with them. Those seeking the Fellowship of Humanity will find it there, but so will those seeking a justification for whatever crimes they are already inclined to commit.

There is one area in which we are required to make assumptions without proof, and that is in our opinions of people we do not know, and in future outcomes involving unknowns. Faith in human beings has two essential aspects: the trust that they will deal fairly with us, and the confidence that they can do what they say they can. If we habitually assume the worst, we will often find our suspicions justified when those we suspect react to us in kind, or become discouraged by our show of doubt. If we assume the best, we may be disappointed, but we will also be far more likely to encounter the best in others, and we will be more likely to succeed. Pessimists have a more accurate estimate of the outcome, but optimists are more likely to succeed. This may be in part because pessimism both anticipates failure and contributes to it. The pessimist is not disappointed in his expectation of disappointment. But he is also unlikely to take the risk needed to find that rare nugget of gold, that true friend, or that serendipitous discovery. Faith, hope, and charity are in fact different sides of the same thing.

Faith extends to ourselves as well as others, in our confidence in our own abilities. Certainty of failure prevents action; success in any endeavour is prevented because the endeavour is not attempted. This is the paralyzing gaze of the black dog of depression. The concept of grace is that quality of confidence that some have and others lack, which may be rooted in past experience or in brain chemistry. The roots of this faith or doubt in self may lie in psychological or physiological causes. The physiological causes are now coming into view, but the psychological conditions may take a lifetime to unravel, if they can be unraveled at all. It is no wonder, then, that doctors are so willing to prescribe pills, which in some cases may be all that is required to break the cycle.

But this faith in oneself is by no means a necessary or sufficient condition for ethical behaviour. Sociopaths tend to have a rather high estimation of themselves. Self esteem is by no means a guarantee of virtue. Something else is required for this, and that something is love. I am not talking about mere sentimentality here. Sentimentality is the love of person as an object, a construct of imagination in which the person become the mere repository of the wishes and desires of the beholder, a hollow automoton that we paint with our favourite colors. Sentimentality quickly turns to anger and hate when the object in question suddenly reveals themselves to be another messy human being, with all the flaws humans are heir too, and with a will of their own that frustrates our expectations. The romantic perfection promised by our grandiose wedding ceremonies is an illusion. It's one thing to throw a lavish party, it's another to expect the party to last forever. Sentimentality is easy; love is hard work. And marriage is not the only relationship that requires love--to some extent, even the briefest encounters require some measure of it.

Love is the motivation that powers faith, the desire to see the best in others and to accept their imperfections. Love is comprised of three aspects: good will, compassion, and empathy. Good will is the willingness to root for the other person, to take pleasure in their achievements without petty jealousy. A uniform application of good will requires a conquest of one's own ego, the petty, needy desire to be better than others. Compassion is the capacity to forgive and give aid to others in need, a counter to greed and selfishness. In fact, compassion counters greed at the societal level as well--ubiquitous generosity calms the fear of material ruin. If helping hands are there to catch us, we need not spend our lives hording wealth in fear of the spectre of poverty. Generosity encourages generosity in others.

Empathy is the counter to sentimentality, a genuine effort to understand the other person. Without understanding, good deeds are worthless. If I were hungry, I would like a peanut butter sandwich, but that same sandwich would kill someone with a strong allergy to peanuts. A glass of wine might be of great benefit to someone in stress, but if that person is an alcoholic, that glass of wine might destroy them. In order to help someone, you must first take the time to understand them. This means listening rather than assuming, giving them what they need rather than what you think they need. This applies, again, at both the personal and societal level. There have been many aid programs that have done more harm than good, in which money or goods blindly given have supported corrupt governments or harmed the health or economic prospects of the recipients. Charity without empathy is simply an attempt to feel good about ourselves, without any real concern for the recipient of our charity.

All of this demands that the question of evil be faced; how do we deal with those who would be all to willing to take without giving back, those in whom no faith is justified? The answer, I think, is fairly obvious--you give them the benefit of the doubt on your first meeting, and punish or simply avoid them after this if they betray your trust. Researchers have discovered that people will, even at a real cost to themselves, punish others they perceive as having cheated them or others, and the desire to do this seems to be very deeply rooted. This, in fact, is called in game theory optimistic tit-for-tat, and is the best general strategy for the prisoners dilemma. However, it produces negative results when applied against a pessimistic or aggressive strategy. One of the ways to recover from this is a variation that allows optimistic tit-for-tat to forgive periodically, or give two chances rather than one, but that still does not deal with the case of the uniformly aggressive strategy, in which the other person always cheats. Such simple models of game strategy, however, do not take into account that aggressive players eventually get a reputation as such. The number of people willing to give them the benefit of the doubt dwindles as the number of people waiting to exact revenge grows. Eventually, they lose all their winnings.

Contrary to the simplistic philosophy of Star Wars, anger is not always the path to the Dark Side. Simple anger directed at a clear transgression has a corrective effect. Sustained anger does not--this is hatred, and leads to the same aggressive behaviour which loses the game. We have evolved this strong tendency to punish cheating because it threatens not only us, but the entire society upon which we depend. We retaliate against those who betray our trust because they are a threat to our kind, to humanity itself. Consider the value of money. It is in fact, merely a promisary note, ink on paper. We attach value to it based upon our faith that others will make good on it. Money is a magical object. The real currency is the faith we hold in others and our institutions. Each betrayal of trust erodes this faith, threatening the very basis that our money, and our entire society, is based on. People who lie, cheat, and steal are like the Coyote in those old Road Runner cartoons, sawing the board in the middle between himself and cliff, cutting his only means of support. The pathetic thing about most criminals is their incapacity to grasp the consequences of their own actions. And yet, there are many legitimate businessmen who act just within the boundaries of the law, and yet are guilty of the same ignorance. If a critical mass of corruption and distrust is reached, the very money they have sacrificed so much else for will be worth less than the paper it is printed on.

If betrayal of the faith in others for personal gain is evil, the ultimate evil is betrayal of faith for the purpose of destroying faith itself. This is the intent of terrorists. Freedom and responsibility are inseparable; one earns one by demonstrating the other. We extend and defend freedoms as a testament of our faith--real faith, not some inconsequential, childish superstition. There is always the danger that someone will abuse this freedom, but that is the price we are willing to pay. To exploit this freedom in an attempt to destroy it is to declare war on humanity itself. And to do this in the name of God is to declare good evil and evil good.

I do not believe in God. The Muslim extremists better hope I'm right. Because if I'm not, they have declared war on God as well.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Respect for Religion

I have some sympathy for the position that religion deserves some respect, but this does not mean that we should simply bow and accept it.

The problem is that the naturalistic world view is not what most people are exposed to first, and those who are not already on the naturalist side experience the arguments of people like Dawkins as strange and rather alien. Science, like religion, requires an initial leap of faith. The scientific method does not demonstrate its value as a means of making sense of the world until some time after it has been accepted. It takes some experience applying the method to see that it works and how it works. Religion also 'works', by disabling rational argument in certain matters so that the nonsensical parts of dogma don't bother people. The leaves us with a horrible symmetry, where the naturalistic and supernaturalistic world views have little to distinguish them at first approach. Right now, religion is in the better position because few children have a good grasp of science, but religion is easy. Much of what passes for religion is really just fairy tales for adults. The passage from childlike fancy into adult superstition is seamless.

But superstition has about as much to do with faith as masturbation has to do with true love, and literalist interpretations of scripture are mere superstition. Faith is not simple adherance to rote beliefs. There is an essential element of optimism concerning ourselves and others, regardless of its theological content (which may be metaphorical, or entirely redundant.) It both expects and encourages the best in human nature, and makes us more willing to dare and risk failure. "Faith, hope, and charity" are simply different aspects of the same basic attitude. This is the signal in the relgious message. All the rest is just noise.

'Respecting' religion doesn't mean agreeing with it or simply agreeing to disagree. The arguments over the last 200 years that advanced rationalism and secularism were as often fought in religious terms as in secular terms. The success of western civilization stands on two pillars; both Socrates and Jesus chose to die rather than run, fight, or deny what they believed to be true. This simple act I believe to be more important than the specific beliefs they chose to die for--it illustrates an allegiance to the truth, and in the power of truth to win on its own terms. If religious fundamentalists want to play hardball, play hardball back, but do it by proving that they are betraying Christianity. If they don't understand your language, learn theirs. After all, they are trying to prove that science isn't science.

Argument by authority is a fallacy, but an argument that appeals to cultural authority can still be used to destroy a position if your opponent claims to base his argument upon that authority. Fundamentalism is a fortress when attacked from without, but a house of cards when attacked from within. There is nothing more entertaining than watching a secular humanist or moderate Christian well versed in scripture demolish fundamentalist sophistry. You can destroy the symmetry between science and religion if you invalidate bad religion on its own terms. Then all roads lead to science. The goal is not atheism, but an allegiance to the truth and a willingness to follow wherever it leads you. The rest will take care of itself. Ultimately, I think, you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, simply because God retreats whenever approached by a refutation, and advances into all empty spaces.

Islam may have a problem here; it is sometimes argued within the Muslim faith that the later positions of Mohammed (when he wanted to kill everyone who disagreed with him) superseded the teachings of his early years (when he preached peace and tolerance.) With this position the religion has been corrupted by a cult of personality. However, what Muslim extremists seem to desire most is a return to the greatness of medieval Islam, and this was the period in which Islam embraced science and reason while the Christians were foundering in ignorance and superstition. If this is their goal, then the fundamentalists are taking Islam in exactly the wrong direction, and they too are betraying their faith.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The End of Liberals and Conservatives

There is an article in this month's Vanity Fair about how liberals have forgotten to how to laugh. There are probably a few reasons for this: orthodoxy that takes itself too seriously, the overweaning desire to be taken seriously by others, and perhaps even a feeling of being under siege. But I suspect that these are all just other ways of saying political correctness, and if the old left only has Marxism, and the new left only has political correctness, it's no wonder that liberal has become a dirty word. Poltical correctness was old five minutes out of the gate; it's what sophomores do when they can't be bothered to think, puritanism practiced by pagans. It's what you espouse when you're secretly a reactionary but still want to sleep with a feminist. And though Marx provided a brilliant critique of 19th century capitalism (which is becoming relevant again as the disparity between rich and poor grows,) it offered no solution, and all attempted solutions failed miserably. The worst trait of Marxists was not their love of Marxism, but their defense of communist regimes, which were little different from their fascist rivals.

Conservatives used to be people who wished to move slowly, in order to preserve the existing order so that chaos would not ensue. They resisted new ideas and practices for fear that these would upset the balance. Conservative usually meant The Establishment. Conservative now means the people who want to do away with the established order and return to the past, usually a past imagined in 3D technicolor with little or no resemblance to the real past, and with no real plan to get back there. As my parents used to complain, "you know, in our day, you never heard about child molestation and rape and street gangs." No, you never heard about it. Of course, all of this was rampant in their day, but you never heard about it. And that made it so much easier to get away with, as revelations about the Catholic church make painfully obvious. Before you can solve a problem, you have to see it and admit that it exists. No, the world has not gone to hell in a handbasket. Now it's the left that is fighting to preserve the status quo, so that social advances are not rolled back (not all of which were really desireable or workable.) Conservative imagine a past that they want to return to, liberals remember the past and have no desire to go back. But neither side really wants to go back to the past, and have damn few ideas about where to go in the future.

Libertarian? Everyone is libertarian about their freedoms, and something of a fascist about protecting their rights. Pure libertarianism is as much a pipe dream as communism. You need government to protect your freedoms. For many, government power and democratic involvement are the only means they have to protect their freedoms. We can't all afford rent-a-cops, and somebody has to delineate the powers of private police forces, or we end up with civil wars. Capitalism itself is a creation of government, protected and regulated by laws, courts, and police. Without these, your property goes to the guy with the most guns and the biggest gang. Conservatives rack up huge debts and build enormous bureaucracies and intrusive police agencies. Liberals balance the budget, pay down the debt, and limit police powers. Both sides favour some blend of economic protectionism and liberalism. So which side is libertarian?

Values? Orthodox religion is notorious for fighting rear guard action against the advance of civilization, defending slavery, exploitative labour practices, brutal enforcement of laws, and undue privelege. Grassroots and minority religion used to be the major constituency for the advancement of social policies. But the populism of the grassroots has made it a ripe target for orthodox demagogues, which the more erudite traditional orthodoxies find repugnant. Again, everyone has switched dancing partners, and we now have the working poor voting for the priveleges of the rich, while the many of the old rich support more socialist policies. The old guard may have despised atheism and relativism, but what would they say when faced with the new age Christianity, which enshrines relativism as its own defense? The traditional values of charity and forgiveness have been replaced with traditional prurient prejudices, judgemental and mean.

What has happened is that we rushed forward during the 60's and 70's into unprecedented freedom and tolerance, and we scared ourselves. Some people couldn't handle it all. But we also had an unprecedented wave of youth, most of whom don't know any better, and the danger of freedom is that some people are going to abuse it. That doesn't make freedom itself a bad thing. If drug abuse is becoming less of a problem, it probably has less to do with law enforcement than it does with pure Darwinian selection. Drugs will take who they will; it's not up to you. The rest will learn to avoid them, or will be naturally wary of excess. This process has probably already taken place with alcohol and those of European descent, while native North Americans, with no experience of alchohol, are being bloodied by their first encounter. They will adapt as we did, as we now are, slowly, with regard to drugs. New freedoms mean new mistakes, but that doesn't make freedom itself a mistake. Given time, we find a balance, without it being imposed upon us. Gays want to marry, not to tear down traditional values, but to partake in them. The new conservatives bandy the word liberty about because secretly, they despise it. I now cringe when I hear the word, because nearly everyone who uses it means the opposite. Where there's no faith, there's always force. Because, you know, people just can't be trusted to do the right thing. In God we trust, but you're not Him.

So I really don't think that Liberals and Conservatives exist anymore. Mostly, they are flags for partisans to rally under, or to tell them who to attack. But while all the fighting is going on, not much is getting done, and any hint of useful information is being lost in all the noise. If we could make everyone forget the labels, do you think that they could sit down and have an honest conversation?