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Thursday, 20 March 2008

Against Preferring Fundamentalists

There are atheists who say they have more respect for fundamentalist believers than for liberals. At least the fundamentalists follow their own logic, even if it is horrible -- so the reasoning goes. Fundamentalists, supposedly, are consistent within their own worldview, they don't "pick and choose", they don't rely on fuzzy, feel-good reasoning. They have their picture and they stick with it, whereas the liberal Christian picture doesn't even make sense.

I want to speak up for the liberal Christians.

There's a sonnet by John Donne that begins "At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels . . . ". At the round Earth's imagin'd corners. You see, Revelations 7:1 says "I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth." The Earth has no corners, but we may imagine them, let our religion in this one aspect be an element only of the life of the mind, a flight of the imagination that makes sense on an emotional, poetic level.

I get that. And you'll note that it's hardly a new idea! Fred Clark the Slacktivist has a certain liking for John Donne. That quote below his blog title about "knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend" is from another of Donne's "Holy Sonnets". And yes, I like that poem, too. For me the whole thing is mere flight of the imagination -- a view which the author would not approve of, I'm sure! Worse still, I don't necessarily agree with the poem's stance, even as metaphor, for it views human nature as sinful and speaks of help only as coming from without, and its call to be completely overthown is too similar to calls made by Christians for their reason to be overthrown for me to be able to be comfortable with it. Nevertheless, it is such a powerful, visceral cry for goodness that I can't help but be caught by it. Thus I can understand religious humanists, and the others who do not liberalise themselves quite so far, who blend truth and tradition by means of metaphor, retaining the structure of belief as an aspect of their lives, and retaining the belief itself to various degrees.

Some Christians, of course, are afraid that they or others will go this far. They would read what I have written above and say "See? This is why we can't go around taking stuff metaphorically all the time." Many of them would then go on to explain that not taking the Bible literally might let you support abortion or (gasp) homosexuality. Of course, the abortion thing is ridiculous, because there isn't a single verse in the Bible that guarantees either that abortion is wrong or that the soul is implanted at conception. In fact, there's at least one passage (Exodus 21:22-23) that sort of implies otherwise. Moreover, if anyone's 'picking and choosing' with no obvious justification, it's the people who pick the invisible verse condemning abortion along with "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination" (Lev:20:13) and Paul's statement in 1 Romans referring to "women [who] exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural" and "men . . . [who] were consumed with passion for one another" as "errors" and "degrading passions", while completely ignoring some or all of the following:

Deut 22:5 A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.

How many of the people who speak against homosexuality also speak against women wearing trousers? I bet some of them are women wearing trousers.

Deut 22:11 You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.

Enough said. Nobody is demanding laws against wool/linen garments.

Lev 25:44 As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you [and not from the Israelites] that you may acquire male and female slaves.
Eph 6:5-6 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.
(and many more from both Old and New Testaments)

People used to care about those ones, but people who liked those verses usually preferred to ignore this verse:

Deut 23:15-16 Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.

Small mitigation, I think.

I could go on until everybody is bored, but I won't (go to the Skeptic's Annotated Bible and you'll be able to pull out hundreds of verses that most of those who deride homosexuality don't follow, I'm sure). People over the centuries have used the Bible for their purposes and derided as "pickers and choosers" those who didn't come to the conclusions mandated by the verses they chose. Such people always ignore plenty of other verses. The reason those people -- whether railing against homosexuality, miscegenation, women's rights or the abolition of slavery -- seem to refer to the Bible more often than their opponents is very simple. It's because they don't have anything else to refer to. It doesn't mean that they actually take the Bible any more literally.

If you're going to pick and choose, by all means pick "love your neighbour as yourself"! Yes, to do so requires an extra-Biblical value judgement (oh, no!), but at least there is some justification! Unlike fundamentalists, people who pick "love your neighbour" aren't picking and choosing for no good reason. They have a reason. It's quite a good one. It's the common human sense of morality, not mandated by the universe, but felt by nearly all human beings in some form. To be sure, morality of this type can get fuzzy around the edges, but the Golden Rule has arisen independently in many, many cultures, and it's always considered crucial. It's not arbitrary, merely relative to humanity. Humanity in general, that is.

Don't feed the fundamentalists. Don't tell them they actually take the Bible more seriously. They'll just say "Yes, that's right, the Bible forbids abortion!" (It doesn't. Remember?)

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Nonbelieving Literati: Not the End of the World

'I don't like affectation. That doesn't mean I try and make everyone look like they just got up in the morning -- that would be a form of affectation too. I like to try and get behind the screens folks put up, get an image of the person they are when they think no-one's looking. Far easier said than done, right enough. Soon as you point a camera at somebody, they perform. Some do it more subtly than others, but they all play a part.'

'Dave made your pictures sound like, I don't know, psychological X-rays.'

'Nah. Nothing quite so wanky and sophisticated. But you can usually tell what I think of the subject without much in the way of in-depth analysis.'

Steff got back to his plate, oddly relieved to have headed off the discussion.

Many of his pictures were psychological X-rays. Fortunately, most people didn't recognise who of.

Thus do we hear the photographer Steff Kennedy's view of his own art in Not the End of the World. I can't help but wonder if author Christopher Brookmyre's view of his own writing is similar: self-conscious, with a hint of self-congratulation for the self-deprecation he allows himself in thinking of this work, coupled with an insecure, and justified, fear of wankiness.

The book is very quotable in places, witty and sometimes even profound for brief moments that don't quite string together properly. I was touched by Larry Freeman's thought that there are orphans, and there are widows, but there's no word for a parent who loses a child. Quite why Larry Freeman has to have lost a child is less obvious. It's irrelevant to the story, and it's not an aspect of his character that actually develops; it seems to be a bauble that figuratively hangs around his character's neck, something to make him seem more interesting, I don't know.

Indeed, Christopher Brookmyre's ability to develop or even convincingly describe character is -- I can put this no more simply -- terrible. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his stereotyped view of fundamentalist Christians, who conveniently justify Steff Kennedy's oh-so-hip contempt for them in every way possible. I'm sorry, but I don't buy that final scene where evil preacher ("Lex") Luther St John isn't willing to die for what he says he believes in. One of the scary things about fundamentalists is that many of them would just love to be persecuted and die for what they believe, and, whatever else you can say about Luther's character, he is portrayed as a true believer, and a terribly messed up true believer at that. You're telling me he wouldn't play to a martyr's script if you strung him up on a cross? Don't be silly.

Ah, but the fundamentalists are nothing compared with Madeleine. So let me just warn you, I'm about to get frank about some of my views on sex -- and, ahem, somewhat impolite about our author's apparent opinions thereof.

Madeleine, Madeleine, Madeleine. Maddy. Magdalene. Where to start? Our dear Maddy used to be a porn actress. She's one of the good guys, naturally, not like those evil fundamentalists who oppose pornography for prurient reasons, or those odd Dworkinites who think pornography demeans women in some way. Indeed, Maddy watched some pornography for a psychology class at university and understood immediately what the ramifications were and were not:

As she had quickly come to learn, there is no such thing as an 'experiment' in academic psychology, because that would suggest the prof was in some doubt as to what the results would be. He knew all along that sustained exposure to this material would make the depicted behaviour seem more natural, commonplace and perfectly ordinary; the effect was 'demystification' rather than desensitization. So a blow-job neither elevated the recipient male to a position of dominance and supremacy any more than it made the woman a debased slattern deserving of all contempt: it was just a blow-job. A pussy wasn't any kind of mystic portal to the sexual dimension: it was a pussy. The men were neither perverts nor superstuds for doing what they were doing; the women neither whores nor goddesses. They were all just people fucking. And it was no big deal.

Alas! I am not in a position to comment directly on this. However, the wonderful Greta Christina, who is resolutely pro-porn and does know what she is talking about, has written this about people assuming that the stuff that happens in porn is normal sex (when in fact most of the time the details are dictated by what looks good, not by what feels good). She has also written this about the complexities involved in supporting porn:

I also think that pro-porn advocates -- myself included -- need to stop pretending that there isn't a problem. We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn -- or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn -- is sexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. And we need to be trying to do something about it.

Christopher Brookmyre is having Maddy say a load of rubbish here. Pornography is fine. Fine! Nothing wrong with it at all! No possible objections! Any fool can see that!

So why, oh please, why was our dear former porn actress only doing it because her Daddy abused her when she was little? How does that fit into Brookmyre's script? Sure, porn is fine -- but nice girls only do it because they were abused as children. Madeleine is a nice girl, you know. Not one of those -- sluts!

You think it couldn't get worse, don't you? It gets worse. Having created this slimy contradiction in values, Brookmyre can think of nothing better to do than to have sex with it in the form of his Mary Sue, Steff Kennedy. Steff Kennedy is interestingly tall and blond. Steff Kennedy takes no bullshit and commits heresy on a regular basis (coool . . .). Steff Kennedy has watched one of Madeleine's porn videos, but it is only when he sees the real her that he becomes suddenly transported to the daft world of the desperately in love, where he feels cutely awkward and humbly oblivious to the obvious fact that -- of course -- she likes him too.

His stomach was churning. His bloody stomach was churning. He hadn't felt like this since he was about fifteen, and the worst of it was that it was for all the same reasons as back then. Thinking about what she looked like, what she smelt like, her smile, the sound of her voice. Excited by the very thought of seeing her, worried by the thought that she wouldn't show, nervousness multiplied with every unfeasibly long minute that passed.

There's more like that. A whole lot more. Remembering the patronising way the author had endowed the object of this stereotypical worship with a pity-inducing excuse for being a porn star, I wanted to spew. But I'd have settled for the author taking his hand off his you-know-what for long enough to write something that didn't reek of sugar and semen.

Instead, I had to watch as the evil fundamentalist Christians tried to use Maddy as a pawn, a tool to promote their ideology by forcing her to repent. Luckily, Steff comes up with the idea that saves the day! Then he head-butts her evil, abusing father so hard that the father is thrown to the wall, all while making cute sarcastic remarks with his hard-to-fathom (but very coool) sense of humour. It was nice to see Maddy take the stage and turn the tables on the moralising pundits who believed her dead, but I wished I could have seen her turn the tables on her author. He, too, is using her to promote his ideology, and he, too, does not respect her.

I know it can be hard for the best of liberals to entirely shake off the complex, powerful memes that surround sex for long enough to perceive the best way for people to enjoy their lives. Heck, I, for one, have had to concede with regard to my own feelings that sexual repression is not just a weird disease they had in the fifties. Finding the best way to view a sexual issue can take time and thought, and even then you won't always be sure you're right. I'd be more inclined to cut Christopher Brookmyre some slack if he wasn't so obviously wanking to the messed-up ideas that he blithely subscribes to.

Monday, 10 March 2008

What if I didn't find Meaning meaningful?

How do we find meaning in life? Theists -- even open-minded ones -- often speak of a sort of meaning that I really don't understand. Here's Quixote, who is ever-thoughtful in both senses of the word, opining quite honestly on the subject of meaning:

"Atheists have purpose in their lives. They find meaning. They stare at the heavens just like theists. If purpose and meaning are illusions, they are darn good ones. We are all fools. Atheists themselves are only slightly less deluded than theists in this area.
"Again, we do not seem to get meaning from matter. Meaning is more consistent with an intelligence behind the universe."

It's not just theists, either. I met an atheist guy at a party once who said that as far as he was concerned, the meaning of life was looking for it -- not creating it, but looking for it. "Maybe there's meaning out there," he said.

How the heck can there be meaning out there? The only meaning I've ever seen was very definitely in here. In my mind!

Seriously, I don't get this. When I say 'meaning', I'm not talking about a property of the universe. I'm talking about my mental state, or perhaps another person's mental state. When I say something means something, I mean that it means something to me, or to you, or to us as part of a shared understanding. There is no echo of some bigger concept. There is no sense in which I am using 'meaning' as a flawed substitute for Meaning with a capital M. This is the only meaning I know and as far as I can tell in my youthful state it is the only meaning I'll ever need.

Apparently, not all atheists agree. John Evo speaks of "trying to play that via rationality I can create meaning". Evidently, for him, (human-)created meaning is not quite enough. I note this with all sympathy and have no desire to pathologise it. It fascinates me. Why do I not feel this way? Authors Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett both surely have to take some credit. The fact that I adopted this notion of meaning prior to my teens may also contribute to my inability to conceive of other possibilities. Whatever the reason, for me 'meaning' is the easy question. Before reading John Evo's post I honestly thought theists just brought that one up because they were deluded and brainwashed.

So I have some questions. If you do believe in, or wish for, or are able to imagine some idea of Meaning beyond the ordinary meaning which simply refers to a state of mind, how would it interact with little-m meaning? What if I didn't find Meaning meaningful? Would that be possible, in your opinion?

Is Meaning just an extra thing that some people find meaningful?

Saturday, 1 March 2008

The Sloppy Art of Improv

I haven't been posting much recently. This is because I volunteered to take part in an improvised comedy show at the local university, and the performances have been taking up most of my evenings. It's good fun. The last time I did improv was years ago. I'd had a crazy crush on this guy, in part because he was brilliant at improvisation, which was something I'd always wished I could do myself but never felt up to. So after he dumped me I decided that the sensible thing to do would be to take the plunge and learn how to do it myself rather than trying to obtain it vicariously.

It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. It's not just that I removed one of my reasons for being so crazily in love with a guy who didn't love me back. Learning to do something I hadn't been sure I could do was also a brilliant way to salve my wounded self-esteem.

The hardest thing about improv is coming up with stuff. But there are tricks to that. Think of something. Anything. Can you? Suppose you're playing the classic improv warm-up game "What are you doing?"

B (to A): "What are you doing?"
A: "Climbing a tree."
(B mimes climbing a tree.)
C (to B): "What are you doing?"
B: "Brushing my teeth"
(C mimes brushing her teeth.)
D (to C): "What are you doing?"

When it comes to your turn, all the stuff that's based on the objects in the room, the things you were talking about in the prior conversation, the picture on A's T-shirt and so on have already been said. You're not allowed to repeat things. What do you say you are doing?

Think of something!

Okay, try this. Think of a letter. Now think of something that begins with that letter.

Easier, isn't it? Improvisation is always easier when you have something to work with. You can work with a random letter that you've picked yourself. You can work with the rules of a theatre sports game. But the main thing you should be working with is the things the other people on the stage are putting into the scene. If two characters are talking about the weather and they say it's raining, find a way to make the rain part of the story. If somebody mimes handing you something, name it based on how big or heavy it seems to be. If someone accidentally trips over while walking into the scene, there had better be a reason why they tripped, and someone had better supply it. "Sorry about that -- forgot to warn you about the electrical wires," you say, or "Oh, that's my mouse! I've been looking for him for ages!" or "Yes, watch out for the elaborate contraption, won't you?" That last one will require you or someone else to then elucidate exactly what the "elaborate contraption" was supposed to do, and what the potential effects of somebody tripping over it are. If you don't already have a story-line in place, the elaborate contraption will probably take over the whole scene. Possibly it was designed by an evil genius. Possibly it was designed by a bored kid to do his homework for him. Either way, the fact that this new character has tripped over it may well have created the central problem that needs to be solved.

So, yes, that's what I've been doing for the past four nights, and that's what I'll be doing for four nights of next week. It's odd, how right it feels. When I first started to get the hang of improv, I remarked to a friend that it was strange, because I'm not normally the sort of person who likes to come up with strange, random stuff to do out of thin air.

She just looked at me with a slight smile, and said "Yes, you are."