Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 3

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it. This is the follow-up to part 1 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-5Y and part 2 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-6b

Conclusion

Despite writing mostly about the first two books of the OT in my last post, I believe that although those two have a much more mythic feel to them, the ways of reading explained previously can be use throughout the stories in the Books of the Prophets. The general ideas are that god is a real badass, you should listen to him and his messengers or there’ll be trouble such as invasion/exile/destruction. It is also made clear in earlier books that as long as you keep god onside you can pretty much do as you please with the people around you, such as genocide or other various war-crimes. Not to forget the Job story when god (omnipotent?) appears to be gambling with a divine adversary over the will-power of one of his favourites. Essentially do as god tells you without question and the rest is up to you. If one looks at the results, one tends to see that if you believe and obey, you’ll be left alone, if you believe and disobey you’ll be punished but if you don’t believe, you’ll also be left alone by god. As he is meant to be the ‘god of the Israelites’, he doesn’t care if Assyrians of Babylonians believe in him and they seem to do quite well from the worship of idols.

This changes in the NT from religion being about openly obeying laws practises and rituals to being a much more personal and interpersonal religion, how you behave in your daily life toward other people and how you feel becomes much more important than whether you eat the wrong food or work on the wrong day. It is not the word but the spirit of the law that is fundamental to religious life. This is an expected progression from a state of affairs where so many civic and religious officials were corrupt and so many people lived in grinding poverty. Making poverty and asceticism virtues in a world where the vast majority of the population had no other choice but to live in that way would always have been popular but in a world where wealth was beginning to be created by a middle class of merchants and traders unconnected to aristocracy and priesthood, this would become ever more important in maintaining social order.

Finally the points boil down to the stories in the bible being not ‘real’ in the sense of actually happening but being constructs of the scribes writing them. The moral compass given to us in those books was relevant to the time it was written and while many of the guidelines for behaviour are still applicable today, those writers could never have imagine the advances in technology and the immense changes societies around the world have undergone in the years since. Once a person accepts that the rules governing the conduct of semi-nomadic, bronze-age goat-herds have different demands from those of a settled, modern, technologically advanced, global world, one can see not so much that the ways of life described in the bible are necessarily ‘wrong’ but are incomplete due to ignorance.

The writers of those books built stories in order to explain to the masses why they should behave in certain ways rather than others. While Aesop’s Fables, the Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the Bible all have clear moral messages in them, none are definitively modern and the methods used to educate children in the ways of the world are now much more complex. Merely giving examples from stories is no longer enough for the modern citizen, people now need explanations and reasons. This is where some of the messages have been lost, why most people no longer believe homophobia, racism or punishments by execution and mutilation to be positive to society. It becomes difficult to give reasons for bigotry when evidence of its necessity is requested. While I do not think that any reasonable person would sincerely advocate discarding all the messages from the bible, I also think that any sane person must allow the laws of the time to evolve with the society to which they apply.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 2

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it. This is the follow-up to part 1 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-5Y

I’m going to skip the rest of the Old Testament (OT) and go straight to the New Testament (NT) for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I have much more personal knowledge of it than the later books of the OT, I also think I have more relevant points to make.

New Testament 

Given that both of these posts have been about the stories in the bible rather than the laws, I will concern this post with only the first 5 books, the 4 Gospels and Acts.

Just as with the OT, there are differing ways of reading the NT.

The near universal interpretation of these books among Christians of all denominations is that not only was the biblical Jesus a historical figure but that all the miraculous stories surrounding his birth, life & death are also historical facts. Some may dispute the accuracy of the calendar (no census in the life of Herod) or the meaning or interpretation of some teachings but to call oneself a Christian means accepting as true certain aspects about Jesus’ divinity. There are minor disputes over the resurrection, (was it spiritual of physical? Was it the actual body of Jesus or just his spirit?) but if you truly believe that the Jesus represented in the early books of the NT was truly divine, all the stories attributed to him become easily believable. Despite these differences, neither fundamentalist or moderate Christians repudiate the historical authenticity of the Jesus story.

There is a modern school of thought (with which I have flirted) that disputes the existence of the historical Jesus, citing the lack of contemporary evidence available. Certainly there is little written of Jesus’ life while he was still living but this is also true of many people of the day. Few citizens had anything at all written about them, it was only wealthy patrons and military or civic leaders who had people writing about them. Poets, teachers and philosophers wrote about themselves but the lives of the vast majority of people are forever lost to history. Literacy within the Roman Empire, despite being very low by modern standards, was much higher than in later times. It would not have been hard to write important records down but given the expense of paper-like materials, the probability of those materials deteriorating without proper care and the fear of persecution for religious authorities, it is not surprising that a small religious sect would have no written records at its outset.

The length of time between the events and their recording, despite being so much less than those in the OT, was still sufficient for the writers to embellish (if they so wished) the life of Jesus to not only fit some of the early prophecies but also appear truly divine to the growing number of gentiles who were beginning to join the early Christian movement while it was still only a sect of Judaism. The factual accuracy of his birth, miracles and death should not affect the validity of his teachings but if a person is seen as an earthly incarnation of god, people are much more likely to  listen to what he has to say.

Given the importance placed in ritual cleansing running throughout Jewish laws, the idea that an earthly divinity would be saved from the physical impurity of conception by coitus is not really surprising. That he should be a child prodigy, learned before his years in the laws of his people is to be expected. As for miracles such as turning water into wine, this can easily be seen as a metaphor for his turning the inner life of a person from mundane to celebratory. Feeding the five thousand is a way of showing his ability to nourish so many people spiritually despite his humble origins. When we come to the resurrection, I believe the reason so many disciples at first despaired, doubted or didn’t even recognise before believing is because there was not true resurrection in the sense of a dead body getting up and walking around. The apostles discovered that even after the death of their teacher, his words and teachings were with them still. In this way he was made ‘immortal’ and it became their purpose to ‘spread the word’. To me, the historical Jesus was man, a teacher who had a lot to say about how people should live in relation to other people rather tha in relationship to worshipping god as had been the case with previous prophets. While these theories may seem blasphemous to many modern Christians, I see them as an inevitable consequence of reverence and a desire to spread the teachings he espoused.

Part 3  to follow soon.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 1

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it.

Old Testament

All cultures and religions, both current and extinct have some sort of creation myth behind them. Most crumbled under the pressure of science, many were never meant to be taken literally anyway but the origin myths of the Old Testament have hung around in popular belief longer than almost any other.

The first and most obvious way of reading the bible, the way I was taught in primary school, is that of a literal interpretation. The literal interpretation of the bible, which is still believed by some evangelical/fundamentalist Christians (and Muslims if using the Qur’an), is the belief that every word within the book is in some way special, that every story told is absolutely true, with nothing left out or added, that all the words written in a modern-day English translation of a collection of texts originally written in Hebrew or Greek (rather than the languages spoken by the characters in the stories) are utterly without fault and of divine origin. If you, as an adult, still believe this you may as well stop reading. Not because you’ll be upset or offended by my views (although you may be), not because I don’t think you’ll be able to understand the arguments against. I don’t think you should read this piece because if you still, despite all the evidence to the contrary, refuse to question the historical authenticity of a collection of books written thousands of years ago by people who had less scientific knowledge than the average modern eight year old, purely on the basis that you think they had similar religious beliefs to you, it is pointless for you to hear opposing opinions and arguments as you will never be able to see the truth for yourself.

The second and most common way of interpreting the bible involves using the term ‘metaphor’ a lot. It concedes to science, geology and archaeology the hard historical facts about our creation and early anthropological progress. In this view, we know that Adam & Eve weren’t ‘real’ in the sense of physically being the only 2 people on Earth from whom we are all descended, although the idea that god created the universe and our disobedience towards god’s laws is the cause of our suffering in both this life and the next is something that must be believed (especially as it’s been difficult for science to disprove). People of this viewpoint don’t generally believe that god actually killed all the millions he is credited with in the bible, although he may have killed many, it is the moral messages behind the stories rather than the pure factual content that is important (don’t make him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry).

The third way of reading the bible is purely as one would read a fictional novel written many years after the events were to have taken place. This interpretation sees any correlation between historical fact and biblical story as an intentional coincidence. The authors were writing stories about their tribe’s past and despite having no access to any sort of archaeological method, they could use stories passed down the generations verbally. Although there will always be a ‘Chinese whispers’ effect on stories handed down through the generations without a definitive and unalterable version being written and copied verbatim, it is not surprising that some of them seemed plausible. That a story such as Exodus sounded plausible to those it was written for in no way makes it important, valid or even worth hearing if you do not believe it has any truth or meaning behind it (unless you want to know the story so you can make up your own mind).

On reflection, I think there may be a fourth way of interpreting some of the texts in the Old Testament, especially the creation and foundation myths of the first two books. Given that when first formed they would have been orally transmitted from elders to children and the inevitable deviation this would entail (Chinese whispers), it is not surprising that the originally historical and explanatory tales became more superstitious with time, eventually fitting in with the belief system of the authors who first wrote them down. If one looks at the story of the Garden of Eden, thinks of the knowledge held in the fruit of the tree as that of farming and the lifestyle within the garden as a stylised hunter-gatherer one, the story begins to make sense. Once farming is discovered, despite the many long, hard and painful hours spent in the fields, a settlement that produces its own food will always be able to support far larger numbers than before. There is, in effect, no way back into the garden. If we look at the Binding of Isaac through these eyes, we can see a time when ancient tribespeople practised child sacrifice, followed by a time when their religious leaders told them it was no longer necessary, that an animal would suffice, told through the story of one man, Abraham. Indeed, the story has many hallmarks of one likely to be re-enacted in ritual. Similarly, the story of Noah may be a way of explaining the events following the LGM (Last Glacial Maximum or ‘Ice Age’), when the sea levels worldwide rose suddenly, with high-tide marks being much higher in a person’s adulthood than in their childhood. With many populations supplementing their diets with seafood and living on the shore, this would have been devastating. The early books of the Old Testament are littered with examples of this and many can be found in the more ‘historical’ Books of the Prophets. Given the amount of mythology used worldwide to explain the physical structures evident in nature, I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that the origins of many of the early biblical stories could have their roots in these types of historical explanations. I think the case is further strengthened by the clear similarities between the bible and another major origin myth text of the time and region: ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’. Clearly the two texts had a common source or sources with the time between the oral tradition and the beginning of literature explaining the differences between the details and emphasises.

Part 2 to follow soon.

Thanks for reading.

Rowan

You May Not Believe Climate Science But You Cannot Deny The Economics

There seems to be a choice of 3 opinions one can take on the Climate Change/Global Warming debate. Firstly one can choose to deny the existence or validity of any evidence that shows the global trend of rising average temperatures. The second position seems to be one of acknowledging the rising temperatures but dismissing the idea that it could be in any way ‘man-made’. The third position is one of acceptance of near-universal scientific consensus, that the world is getting warmer and its our (collective) fault. There is a fourth position of believing the climate science but not caring enough to do anything about it but this is really just a form of denial without having to deal with the arguments, outright denial or just looking the other way often end up with the same results, that of having to deal with far larger problems, far quicker and more expensively than would have been the case had they been confronted at the first opportunity.

There are probably a number of motives for the denial evidenced in the first two opinions listed above. These vary from religious to financial but all appear rooted in the human disposition of being opposed to change of any sort. One can be opposed to changes in the global climate but that will not stop them happening. It is interesting that those who deny the often overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change will often point to other scientific evidence for previous changes in the global climate, accepting only the evidence they like to hear, not unlike the ‘independent’ studies into the links between smoking and cancer in the 1950s. There is a huge amount of industrial capital invested in fossil energy sources, not just by us in the West but globally, being told that we need to change our cultural dependence is unsurprisingly distressing. It is also reasonable that those with the most to lose would want to make absolutely certain that change is necessary before it is effected. However, misleading the public with lies and bullying politicians into doing things they know will have negative long-term consequences for their citizens are not actions that can be tolerated. The media has a lot to answer for this, the traditional media debate pitches two opposing views against each other to argue their points, leaving the audience to make up their own mind with some sort of compromise. Little weight is given to the scientific strength of each of the opponents, even if 99% of scientists are sure of one side of the argument, the audience are presented with a view that both opinions are equal, this may be fine in political debate but more emphasis needs to be given to scientific backing in debates about public policy that is based on scientific evidence.

Imagine that there was no scientific evidence to support the claims made by proponents of Climate Change. Imagine the world was not warming and global weather patterns were not changing. We do know that the world as a whole is getting richer and our lives are becoming more and more automated with every passing year. Labour saving devices in the home and workplace save our biological energy but cost in the form of electricity and are becoming an ever more important part of people’s lives throughout the world. Add to that the increasing burden of travel, caused by the people wanting to travel to ever more exotic locations for their holidays or having to travel ever further for work and the energy demands of the world show no signs of abating in the near future. The fossil fuels available to us are a finite resource, despite new options for extraction being opened up in Arctic waters (ironically by Climate Change itself) the increase in demand is far faster than the increase in supply. Any basic economic model will indicate that where demand exceeds supply, prices will rise and when the supply is limited by finite resources rather than expandable manufacturing capacity, prices will continue to rise until they become unaffordable. This is a process currently underway, the diesel I put in my van costs nearly £1.50 a litre ($10.80/gallon) and despite the restriction of supply caused by the current political problems in the Middle-East, a real-terms fall in global energy prices is not likely in the near future. The current stretch on supply chains means there is no slack in the system so any disruption causes massive peaks in the oil price. Any medium term increase in supply by drilling in ever more hazardous environments is likely to be more than offset by not only the increased demands from the developing world but also the massively increased costs of extraction from oilfields found in very deep or very cold locations. Not to mention the heightened risks associated with these types of drilling techniques, both to the local ecology and the workforce.

Home energy bills continue to rise faster than inflation and fuel poverty (more than 10% of household income spent on home energy bills) has become a significant problem in Britain yet popular opinion still seems to resist the idea of energy efficiency in the home, with political pressure pushing for tighter controls on the prices charged by energy companies and the high initial costs of renewable sources being cited as ‘prohibitive’ to their widespread implementation. LED lighting is expensive to install but costs less in the long-term, is this any different from buying a house rather than renting? We seem to be waiting until the energy bills we pay are so high the payback on installing PV cells or wind turbines are almost immediate. All the while certain elements are releasing negative and untrue stories to the media about the longevity and maintenance costs of the technology used in the harnessing of these energy sources.

The fundamentals of my argument boil down to this:

Fossil fuel energy is getting more expensive due to supply and demand issues, who do you think will be best prepared for the future? The state who makes sure its citizens have full access to oil until the final drop has been extracted while refusing to invest in new technology to use the various ‘free’ sources available to them, or encouraging its citizens to use energy in a more responsible way? Or, the state who begins a gradual shift from fossil to renewable sources as early as possible, while reducing the overall demand on energy supply by educating its citizens in the benefits of energy efficiency?

Even if you are a Climate Change ‘denier’ or ‘sceptic’, your bills will continue to rise. You may not wish to change the way you live but it will cost you more if you do not. I may dislike the raised costs of precious metals and could choose to deny their scarcity but like Cnut, the will of a person cannot hold back the tide.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

God Does Not Own Marriage

Today marks the beginning of a 12-week consultation on the introduction of same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Since 2005, same-sex couple have had the option of a ‘civil partnership’ with some of the same but not all the legal rights given to married couples. The proposed legislation would make no distinction between any married couple of whatever gender mix. It would also allow currently married people to legally change their gender but would not allow same-sex marriage in any religious ceremony.

As expected, all the usual church spokespeople have been screaming their bigoted bile about this ‘grotesque’ plan which, they say will ‘shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world’ and ‘undermine the traditional idea of the family’. Given that none of these ceremonies will be held in churches, I’m not really sure what it has to do with them.

When I married my wife in 2007, we were forbidden from using any religious text as a reading during the ceremony,. Despite the passage we wanted having no reference to any ‘god’, we were not allowed to use it because it was from the bible. This is due to an archaic law introduced when civil marriage ceremonies first started, separating entirely civil marriage from religious while keeping them equal in law. This separation was to allow people who were not Anglican to marry legally in the UK, recognising that many of the citizens of the time were not of that denomination and that people should have the legal freedom to be equal in the law while maintaining their freedom of religion. I think most people would agree that this is right, I’m not really sure how many people could have too many objections. If you follow that principle through, one cannot allow same-sex couples to exist without giving them the right to marry.

I personally have 2 issues with the proposed legislation

  1. Not allowing same-sex couples to participate in religious marriage ceremonies is, in my opinion, hostile to both religious freedom and freedom of sexual orientation. If a religious body wishes to conduct a ceremony for a same-sex couple that it is allowed to conduct for a couple of differing sexes, I can see no reason for not allowing them to if that ceremony is recognised by law when conducted in a registry office.
  2. If same-sex marriage becomes legal, I can see no purpose for keeping the civil partnership scheme currently available to same-sex couples, especially if the option is not available for couples of differing sexes.

Both the Catholic and Anglican churches seem to have a massive problem with the idea that same-sex couples should be allowed the same legal rights as those of differing sexes, their reasoning seems to be based on the idea that marriage is in itself some sort of ‘gift from god’. It’s not as if nobody got married before Jesus, plenty of pagans had the idea of 1 woman, 1 man – together for life etc, well before anyone outside the Levant had ever heard of Moses and his laws. Despite the monopoly granted to state approved churches during the dark ages, the concept of a lifelong joining of a couple in love really has little to do with any religion. The idea that the Roman Catholic church, which banned its priests from marrying to avoid having to make payments to widows, should have a say in who may and who may not make a public and legally binding declaration of their love for each other, is frankly laughable.

I’m not sure how allowing more people to marry will ‘change its meaning in law…will have a knock-on effect in everyday life’. What knock-on effect would that be then? More people feeling a part of mainstream society rather than excluded outcasts? More stable long-term relationships between equal partners? What exactly are they scared of? Are they worried about their congregations ‘turning’ gay and eloping to the registry office? Do they really think that allowing same-sex couples to marry will make more people ‘turn’ gay? As for its meaning changing in law, it is now rightly illegal to discriminate between the sexes on almost any grounds, why should marriage be any different? Either we’re all equal or we’re not, I think we should be.

Of course what the religious figures we hear on this matter are really scared of is losing the ever fading power over their flock. The idea that people are thinking for themselves and coming to different conclusions than those set down in a set of rules imagined by bronze age shepherds before being rewritten and reinterpreted to strengthen the grip of the current incumbent power of the day is, to those in positions of religious power, abhorrent. Any change in the law that allows people who are not religious to live a lifestyle without the need for approval by religious authority will always be (and has always been) opposed by the members of that religion.

After stripping back all the hatred and homophobia, what the issue rarely comes down to is equality. Do you think that people who have a different lifestyle to the majority should be granted the same rights as the majority? Or do you think that being in love with a person many people disapprove of should prevent you from access to the legal benefits that are accorded to those who happen to be lucky enough to love a person many people approve of?

The concept of a lifelong union between humans has probably been around longer than any organised religious belief and is certainly far older than any monotheistic system. They may have embraced marriage and incorporated it into their own dogma but it gives them no right to issue diktats over who it applies to, certainly no power over democratically elected governments, the voters who elected them or a peaceful minority who want nothing other than to be treated equally.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Atheism Is Not A Religion

This week I have been trying to defend my lack of religious belief against an onslaught from various believers who seem to think it impossible to be without religion. I admit it, I usually start the discussions but it seems that the very concept of religious belief and all it entails are so ingrained in the psyche of some people that they cannot comprehend that non-belief in any divine power means anything other than just that. First you get all the one-liners (if atheism is a religion, abstinence is a sexual position etc) but they don’t really get to the heart of the matter or indeed explain the fundamental differences between belief and non-belief.

I think I need to define what is meant by religion, the dictionary I have to hand describes it as:

  1.  belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny
  2. any formal or institutionalized expression of such belief: the Christian religion
  3. the attitude and feeling of one who believes in a transcendent controlling power or powers
  4. chiefly RC Church the way of life determined by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience entered upon by monks, friars, and nuns: to enter religion
  5. something of overwhelming importance to a person: football is his religion
  6. the practice of sacred ritual observances
  7. sacred rites and ceremonies

Have a look at that list and I think you can discount 1,3,6 & 7 without any discussion, now for the others.

No. 2, is there a formal or institutionalised expression of disbelief? I’m not sure is that even makes sense as a sentence, let alone a concept. “I solemnly swear on this book which means nothing to me that I believe none of its contents” doesn’t really work, there is no basic or fundamental belief system lurking behind the facade of atheism, despite the similar opinions of those who call themselves atheists (more on that later).

No.4, I’m not aware of any way of life only open to those who reject any notion of a divine power. One may find that the ‘life scientific’ is more often chosen by those who have no religious belief but one is not excluded from any scientific position on the basis of religion, even if there is a clear conflict between the tasks of the scientist and the belief in question. It is up to the believer to decide what he or she can/will and/or  cannot/won’t do and whether or not the role is suitable for him or her, not the faculty or institution of employ. There have been cases in this country of registrars refusing to conduct same-sex civil partnerships and shop assistants refusing to sell alcohol, purely for religious reasons. Public opinion has very much been on the side of common sense in these cases. If you can’t or won’t do the job and all it entails for religious (or moral) reasons, don’t take it, it’s not up to your employer to be your moral compass, they’re there to assess if you are capable to fulfilling the role, not to check if you feel ok about it. Going back to original point however, I think it unlikely that a self-professed atheist (or indeed Muslim) would be able to find work as a vicar or imam, no matter what qualifications were held, or what previous experience acquired.

No.5 could really go in the category of quasi-religion, as it really qualifies its use when the subject in question is not really a religion at all but is being treated like one in a purely obsessive sense. One could make a case for come of the modern-day so-called ‘new’ atheists coming under this category but to say that ‘atheism is like a religion to me’, only shows that it clearly is not a religion and the term is only useful in explaining some of the behaviours exhibited around the atheist in question.

Thats the dictionary definitions out of the way, now on to the more abstract meanings. There is a sense in which all believers and non-believers are atheists, in that atheism in itself doesn’t distinguish between any particular god, gods or spirits. In believing one system to be true or real one must of course reject the validity of all others, one cannot be both a Christian while also believing in Zeus or Odin (despite our month & week names and our dating of religious festivals). The main reason the early Christian church was persecuted by the Roman empire was because of its apparent ‘atheism’ evidenced by its refusal to acknowledge the state-recognised gods of the classical world. This was also the reason why Judea was seen as a ‘troublesome province’ as opposed to the pagan tribes who had little difficulty reconciling their own beliefs with a system based upon similar lines.

Now on to the point I raised earlier and promised to return to. Any believer who has read this far may well be thinking something along the lines of: “yes, but you atheists all think abortion and gay rights are ok” or “every atheist I speak to sounds like a fundamentalist to me”. It may seem like that but it is certainly not the case. There is no fundamental or core system of beliefs that being an atheist requires. It may seem that there is a liberal bias in the atheist community but that is really rooted in the concept that empirical scientific evidence is required (not just anecdotal hearsay or opinion) before anything can be truly accepted as fact. Scientific data rarely back up bigoted opinions about race or sexual orientation and a rejection of any hypothesis that cannot be independently verified, rather than it ‘just feeling right’ is often at the heart of an atheist’s world view. Many atheists may come across in a condescending or patronising manner because there is as much evidence for and adult’s belief in god as for a child’s belief in the tooth fairy (tooth at night – money in the morning, all the other children in class have the same, parents tell of a tooth fairy, why would a child not believe?). Just as the child in class with the older sibling tells all his or her classmates of the fairy fiction espoused by all their parents, so too the atheist feels the need to explain his or her revelation to all the naive believers who will listen. It is not surprising that many believers will be offended by the certainty or persistence of the atheist but this should not be mistaken for fundamentalism. A fundamentalist will continue to believe whatever her or she believes no matter what opposing evidence or argument is presented to them, the term ‘blind faith’ becomes appropriate here. A questioning mindset is often what brought an atheist to their gnosis, hard evidence to the contrary should never be dismissed.

One may be able to infer certain character traits, opinions and behaviours from a person’s religion. Catholics don’t generally like condoms, Muslims aren’t too hot on homosexuals and Zen Buddhists aren’t inclined towards procrastination. These are not merely traits that are common among populations adhering to one set of beliefs or another, these are actually enshrined in the teachings of the religions themselves. This cannot be said of atheism, which has no teachings, sacred texts, belief system, tenet or dogma.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Both the UN and Al-Assad are the Enemies of the Syrian People

We have today witnessed the first cracks from within the core of the ruling Ba’ath party in Syria, with the resignation of the deputy oil & mineral wealth minister Abdo Hussameddin. More importantly, he has not merely resigned because of the regime’s brutal oppression of the rebels, he has chosen to side with the revolutionary forces in their cause and questioned the legitimacy of a regime whose grip on power can only be maintained by overwhelming force and even reported massacres of dissidents.

The significance of this action remains to be seen. Will we see a domino effect of Al-Assad opponents from within the regime switching sides? Or will the inevitable destruction of Abdo Hussameddin’s property and persecution of his family be enough to keep quiet any dissenting voices within the party?

As yet, all those switching sides have been from within the armed forces, mostly from lower ranks, the political power base has remained steadfast in its opposition to the popular uprising seen in some cities. In the Arab and North African regimes that have fallen so far; Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the regimes found it difficult to maintain internal support from ministers and the military, handing the revolutionary forces priceless political capital and legitimacy in the eyes of the external world. If those closest to the leader desert, it becomes near impossible for any outside observer to remain neutral in a civil or revolutionary war. A dictator who can only rely on the support of his overpaid generals cannot be granted any degree of legitimacy by the world when an active opposition movement is in progress. This is why the latest political development in Syria could prove to be so significant. Without the internal support from his party, the backing given to Al-Assad from the permanent UN Security Council members of China & Russia becomes ever more farcical. For now, they can hide behind the maxims of ‘stability’, ‘security’ and ‘opposition to regime change’, safe in the knowledge that, having learnt painful lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Nato and the Arab League have no desire for active military intervention in a country with a strong, if hugely unpopular, governing regime and no stable political opposition.

It remains one of the aspects of modern humanity that I find most abhorrent. Our inability to act in a supportive, coherent manner to stop known acts of genocide in foreign countries is, for me, evidence of how far humanity has to left to go before we can call ourselves truly humane. Be it in Rwanda, Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sudan, Sierra Leone or Syria, the facts that those affected are ‘not like us’ or ‘far away’ has no bearing on the suffering endured. This is not the middle of the 20th century, no-one in the outside world knew of the atrocities committed in German death camps during WW2 or the forced labour camps in Kampuchea (Cambodia) until well after the events, there was no opportunity to prevent them in action. Now the information and communication technology exists to make the world aware of what is happening almost instantaneously. Even when the incumbent government shuts down communication networks, getting an arresting grip on the slippery multi media messages coming out from any conflict zone is now impossible, some will always squeeze out. To what end? So politicians can sit around for months debating ‘sanctions’ and ‘non-lethal aid’ or ‘peace-keeping missions’. Even these insipid measures take months if not years to occur, yet when they do they achieve nothing. The records are littered with cases of victims being murdered in clear view of UN soldiers with no fear of reprisal because of the pathetic terms of engagement given to the soldiers, in some cases not even allowed to return fire when engaged.

Please don’t mistake me for a war-monger. I am always opposed to unnecessary military conflict, it is the inability of the international community to reach a consensus on a positive course of action that I find so frustrating. It is clear to all what is wrong, we all know it must be stopped. It is not so much the wrong action we need be so scared of, no action in these instances is the worst course. Iraq is not to be seen in this way, Saddam Hussein was, despite his reputation, not in the active process of eliminating whole sections of society opposed to his rule. He may have been portrayed as a threat to democracy but this was not, in my opinion, enough to justify his removal.

I do not want any military intervention in Syria but I do think the international community could do far more to prevent further violence. It is understandable that China & Russia would want to stop the UN preventing the brutal oppression of a dissenting of rebellious movement, after all they want to be able to continue to do the same to their own domestic opposition. It is the construct of the UN Security Council that is to blame. Too much emphasis is placed in universal consensus and power invested in vetoes by the permanent members. One of the purposes of the UN is to prevent rogue states from doing as they please without repercussions. If a dictator knows that getting China or Russia onside grants you the equivalent of immunity from prosecution, why would they worry? It is the overly hierarchical bureaucracy of the UN that slows its effectiveness, it is democratic compromise rather than universal endorsement or veto that will affect a solution to worldwide problems.

None of what I write can help the people suffering on the ground in Syria, my blogging is just another part of the diplomatic waffling that only serves to lengthen the process of helping the victims. Until people start to realise that not only are all the people of the world deserving of a basic standard of living, that not only should the leaders of other countries opinions be equal but also that their own opinion is of no more import than that of any others will the principles behind the founding of the UN be truly implementable.

Hopefully, the Al-Assad regime will realise the futility of their current position and start a strategic withdrawal from power without foreign military intervention but I fear there will be much more blood spilt before then. This blood will be on the hands of all politicians and political lobbyists around the world who believe that their opinion is, because of their financial or military power, more valid than any others who disagree.

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

 Voltaire

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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