Monday, April 23, 2007

on spiritual journeys

let's get spiritual

Having watched Monster’s Ball the other night, during which I couldn’t help but marvel at Halle Berry’s magnificence, I’ve found her cropping up on TV and on the net wherever I look, as often happens. I was disappointed on reading, though that she’s a very spiritual type. Alarm bells. Almost can’t be helped though, living in America, and it’s not as if I’m contemplating romance or anything. Sorry Halle.

So what is a spiritual type? A secularist like me might say, someone who believes in supernatural beings, but I strongly suspect that for spiritual types this wouldn’t do at all. Too neutral, tending towards negative. No, a spiritual type believes in a rich vibrant world beyond the confines of the merely rational and narrowly scientific.

A spiritual type is a person of soul, of depth, someone in touch with the elemental mysteries of being, even if she can’t express it adequately. It’s essentially inexpressible, ineffable, but you know when you’re in the presence of a truly spiritual being, just as you know and can feel the aridity of a person devoid of spirituality.

Unfortunately this sort of talk is just so much self-serving bumf. We’ve all met religion-obsessed people who are narrow-minded, bigoted, unimaginative and self-centred in the extreme. Of course they can be described as unspiritual, but that’s only because those who like to use the term naturally associate it with positive qualities. To be spiritual is to believe in supernatural beings and to be kind, open-hearted, giving and all the rest of it. With the implication that it’s because they believe in supernatural beings that they have these positive qualities. It’s hard to avoid circularity in these attributions. Real spirituality has a warm glow to it, a warm glow caused by spiritual feelings which are warm, and spiritual.

Not that such circularity bothers most spiritual types. The fact that spirituality can’t be effectively defined outside of the belief in supernatural beings won’t stop the employment of the term as a club for beating up on ‘narrow secularism’.

Today, on the news, I heard that someone had embarked ‘on a spiritual journey’. That someone was Scott Rush, the unfortunate Australian who was originally sentenced to life imprisonment in Indonesia for heroin trafficking. On appeal, his sentence was changed to death by firing squad.

The news reminded me of the documentary on Van Nguyen, executed in 2005 by the Singaporean government for drug trafficking. He too was described as a changed man by the time of his death, principally because of a late turn to religion, presumably of the Christian variety. One Catholic commentator crowed at the time that ‘Van Nguyen died a repentant sinner and in a state of grace.’

Of course it’s hardly surprising that people turn to the supernatural when in such desperate straits, and it might seem churlish not to respect their soi-disant spiritual journeys to the feet of deities, but I can’t help my own gut feeling, which is one of extreme irritation and, dare I say, a modicum of contempt. The fact that these people are very likely sincere in their conversions doesn’t sweeten the taste in my mouth one bit.

In Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, a very useful attempt is made to explain the attractions of, and indeed the ‘naturalness’ of, religious belief. An essential element of the entities believed in by the religious is that they are intensely interested in our lives. They’re aware of every hair on our heads, to quote from the film 21 grams. And they know whether we’ve been bad or good, they’ve weighed our lives in eternal scales of justice, their judgment is ultimately the only one that matters. How this could be so, the mechanics of such divine knowledge, these are matters of little importance to believers, as much anthropological field-work has shown. Sufficient that there is a will to believe, or simply a belief, for it’s not willed for the most part, but simply accepted. Taken for granted.

Why? What purpose does this belief serve? And why do some escape the net of belief? And where does science fit into all this? All will be revealed, or at least explored, in future posts.


Saturday, April 14, 2007

more on the retreat from realism

the old endless dumb debate

I don’t often read The Weekend Australian these days, and I missed the article on Richard Dawkins, ‘A man of reason’ in last week’s issue, but there’s some feedback in this week’s issue. I’d love to know how many readers write in and how newspapers select the letters to be published, but I was disappointed to find that the two most prominent responses, and I can’t quite believe they were representative, came from the pro-religioun lobby.

John Heininger, the first commentator, is or was Chairman of a primitivist organization called The Evangelical Apologetics Society. As the link shows, he’s been an activist in the creationism field for at least fifteen years. His letter contains the standard guff:

Atheist Richard Dawkins is lost in an evolutionary wonderland where the impossible happens, and always in reverse... For example: order from chaos; complex from the simple; life from non-life; consciousness from non-consciousness. In short, chickens from scrambled egg. He believes that all these ‘natural’ miracles happened without a miracle worker, which one would have to concede is really miraculous. Even more miraculous is why natural selection would preserve within human genetics the need for belief in spiritual forces that supposedly don’t exist.

Anyone who’s read Dawkins’s books, or those of Peter Atkins, or any other reputable science writer, will find plenty of material to debunk Heininger’s simplistic ‘this from that’ linkages. The finest expository passages from Climbing Mount Improbable, for example, reveal that this is no fantasy land Dawkins evokes. The trouble with these critics is that they don’t bother with the evidence presented as they’re already convinced of their centuries-old truths. It’s just a repetitive mantra. As to why the belief in supernatural forces, sans evidence, remains strong, that’s a vital question, and one being tackled from an evolutionary angle by thinkers such as Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran. I’ll be writing more about that later.

The other letter comes from an Adelaidean, one John R Sabine, who appears to be an agricultural scientist as well as a regular commentator on the limitations of science. His contribution is also an old standard:

A belief that science has all the answers is as much a leap of faith as is belief in the existence of god.

The question of whether science has all the answers is not one that bothers most scientists, but we can certainly look back over the history of science, especially since the explosion of knowledge as a result of the application of scientific methodology from the seventeenth century, as a source of pride and continued inspiration. The history of organized religion is by contrast a sorry spectacle, no matter what your vantage point.

Sam Harris has popularized the phrase that faith is a belief in something for bad reasons – or no reason. I can’t think of a good reason for belief in supernatural beings. The scientific approach, on the other hand, has been spectacular successful, its fruits are all around us. This isn’t triumphalism, it’s realism folks.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 09, 2007

the Iraqi death toll and who's to blame

another cynically gratuitous image of the horror necessitated by war

Not long ago, listening to the RN news, I was struck by two items alongside each other. One was the apparent decision of David Hicks to plead guilty to a minor-sounding terrorism charge, the other was a claim that the much-derided study published in the Lancet last October, which found that more than 600,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the US-led invasion, had the backing of more than one insider from the governments responsible for the bloodshed.

It’s a massive figure – more than 200 times the number of people killed in the September 11 attacks that supposedly changed the world [they certainly changed the world for all those dead Iraqis, whatever their number]. So how reliable are the various contradictory figures being bandied about?

The British-based Iraq Body Count currently has figures of between 60,000 and 66,000 dead, though even they admit that this is a conservative figure. The study published in the Lancet was conducted by Johns Hopkins University, and a week or so ago it was revealed that high-ranking British government officials thought highly of it, in spite of the predictable dismissals from the top in Britain and America. In December 2005 George Bush spoke of 30,000 Iraqi dead [civilian and military], but I’ve no idea how he arrived at those figures, nor have I been able to locate any analysis behind the claim.

Accusations of right-wing and left-wing bias create a dense fog around many of these figures. For example, a website calling itself Logic Times, which makes a claim to rationalism but is in fact a highly conservative operation, backs the IBC website in terms of its overall methodology, but notes that some 81% of these casualties, as of November 2005, were male, and that 90% were adult. They question how this could be possible for civilian casualties, when 44.5% of the population, according to their figures, are under 18.

This sounds plausible, but Logic Times fails to mention that each and every ‘kill’ is documented on the website, which breaks them down in terms of time, location, target and weapons used. Even a quick look at this breakdown helps to explain the situation – that a disproportionate number of the dead include the civilian police and security [all male], kidnap victims [almost entirely male], factory workers [almost entirely male] and prominent political figures [more or less all male]. Even when the target has been an open market place, it’s hardly surprising that, in such violent and dangerous times and areas, women and children would be encouraged to remain at home more often than usual, and this would be reflected in the figures. I would imagine too, though I have no evidence to back this conjecture, that when a particular area becomes targeted, as happened with Fallujah, the evacuation and protection of women and children would be a priority for the Iraqis.

However, instead of trying to explain the documented data, Logic Times simply makes the general but in fact unsubstantiated [and, in the case of this invasion, false] claim that ‘’Collateral damage does not differentiate between male and female, between child and adult.’’ On the basis of this generalization, and without any regard to IBC’s documented evidence, the website proceeds to play with the demographic figures, complete with various laughable colour-coded charts, to come up with an ‘’amended’’ figure amounting to less than a third of that of IBC. If this is logic, we’re in real trouble, but it isn’t, so there’s no point in mounting an argument for solid empirical evidence in opposition to logic.

Another point that needs to be made in rebuttal of this s[h]ite is the attempt to compare the death-rate after the US-led invasion of Iraq with the death rate under Saddam Hussein. According to the website’s doctored statistics, the civilian death-rate is well down on the death-rate under Saddam, averaged over twenty-four years. This is thoroughly disingenuous, even if we were to take the website’s statistics as accurate – which we would be very ill-advised to do, because the death toll in the last years of Saddam’s rule had reduced substantially. Of course, there is much controversy about the number of deaths – particularly infant deaths – occurring under the sanctions regime of the nineties, and who was responsible [see this piece for analysis of the issue] but there is surely no doubt that the more vicious tendencies of Saddam were being kept in check by a system of containment and surveillance. Saddam was nasty but not stupid, and he well knew that the Americans were seeking any excuse to invade and oust him.

The IBC website has pointed out, in a press release marking the fourth anniversary of the occupation, that year four was by far the worst for violent civilian death. Clearly there has been a massive increase in internecine, sectarian violence, and some will argue that the occupation is not directly responsible for the current carnage.

The Johns Hopkins study, which comes up with a figure ten times that of IBC, tries to resolve this controversy by stating ‘’that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred’’. Of course the amount of people who would have died without the invasion must remain speculative, but it can be projected with reasonable accuracy if the pre-invasion policy of containment and surveillance had been continued. The study used the method of cluster sampling, looking at death rates in a cluster of 1850 households, and extrapolating from the sample. The vast majority of these reported deaths were verified by death certificates. There are some obvious issues here – such as the locations of the sampled households [the death toll in Baghdad being much higher than in regional areas], but the methodology is apparently tried and true and has long been used to measure death tolls from famine and natural disasters. Moreover, this study backed up a previous study in 2004, largely replicating the findings for the 2003-2004 period of the invasion and occupation.

It’s hardly surprising that a study employing such a vastly different methodology from that of the IBC team would come up with vastly different figures, but on the face of it, the Johns Hopkins study seems more reliable than one which relies only on confirmed reports and actually witnessed bodies, given the difficulties of locating and reporting the dead in such a violent scenario. Exactly how reliable it is is hard to say, and we should I think heed the words of Human Rights watch spokesperson Sarah Whitson, who said

We have no reason to question the findings or the accuracy of the survey. I expect that people will be surprised by these figures. I think it is very important that, rather than questioning them, people realize there is very, very little reliable data coming out of Iraq.

The whole issue of body counts is controversial and often used for political points-scoring of course. Consider this comment by one Brendan O’Neill in an article called ‘When Body Counts Kill’:

In truth, the death-obsession of anti-war activists is motivated by cynicism and opportunism, and it represents a gobsmacking abdication of responsibility for coming up with a convincing political argument against the war. In place of a hard debate about new forms of Western intervention and why they're a problem - and debates about whether the West should have the right to interfere in other state's affairs, or whether a people can ever be liberated from without - we get shock-horror snapshots of dead kids and blown-up body parts and weeping mums and dads virtually having nervous breakdowns on the manicured lawns of the White House, in an effort to blackmail us emotionally into being concerned about the war. They hope that gore will make people anti-war, where their own political arguments may have failed to.

The use of ‘they’ in the last sentence here is typical of the tedious polarization of these debates. How O’Neill has been able to determine the motivations of anti-war activists remains a mystery. In fact, O’Neill’s description of the anti-war movement throughout his essay is a gross caricature. As to the political arguments against the war, they have been repeated time and time again, it seems to me. The first and foremost is that it has substantially hardened opinion against the USA and its allies in the Middle East generally, and made the world a considerably less safe place. Another argument – well-put by philosopher A C Grayling - is that America’s attempt to impose democracy in a far-flung outpost of the Middle East needs to be scrutinized in terms of its own domestic democratic credentials, or lack thereof, and its highly undemocratic, if not always successful, coercion of the UN and its security council. The foreign policy of any country is essentially self-serving, that of the US no more and no less than any other, and the people of Iraq and the Middle East are well aware of this, and understandably wary. This is why the self-styled police need to be policed.

The war itself, and the mess that Iraq now finds itself in, is also a powerful argument for the anti-war activists. The previous policy, though far from perfect, was more effective in safeguarding lives, and the hoped-for outcome, after the inevitable shedding of blood, of a more democratic [and biddable] Iraq, seems in hindsight to have been naive. I would have preferred, in the past and for the future to see more dialogue between the west and nations like Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The Bush administration’s policy of self-righteous isolation and negative rhetoric has inevitably increased tensions wherever it has been practiced, and like many others I look forward to its demise.

No matter how ‘degraded’ the debate may be over the body count, it’s obviously an important matter. This US administration chose to turn its attention to Iraq after what it considered [wrongly] an easy victory in Afghanistan, it lied persistently to the international community about WMDs, it tried to coerce the UN and its weapons inspectors, and it tried, with the most cynical dishonesty, to connect Iraq, in any way it could, to the events of September 11 2001. Few intelligent people were completely taken in, though some of us hoped that some good would come out of the overthrow of a brutal dictator, in spite of the self-serving rhetoric and bullying antics of the Bush administration. In other words, we hoped life would be a great deal better for the Iraqi people at the end of it all. The huge death toll as a result of the occupation, and the internecine strife currently convulsing the country, has put paid to that hope for the foreseeable future, but there were warning signs from the beginning. Whether or not the continued occupation is exacerbating the situation is not for me to say of course, nor do I wish to blame the invaders entirely for the sectarian violence, but the fact remains that this was a monumental disaster, and we all had a right to expect better.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post the David Hicks affair, a minor matter in the grand scheme of things perhaps, but surely symptomatic of the arrogance of a state that has no brake upon it apart from the censure of its own citizenry. The scene was set for these sorts of abuses by Bush’s infamous speech claiming that ‘you’re either with us, or with the terrorists’. Amongst other things, this gave the green light for Afghanis and Iraqis who, unsurprisingly, resisted the invasions of their respective countries, to be rounded up, branded as terrorists, tortured and held at the US government’s pleasure without rights or recourse. Hicks, clearly a naïve adventurer, was caught up in this nightmare, and after the first months of horrific treatment, suffered the misfortune of being a citizen of a nation whose government – to our eternal shame – claimed, contrary to every other concerned nation, to find nothing wrong with the flagrant disregard of basic human rights being practiced by the US administration in its Guantanamo Bay facility. The guilty plea of Hicks is, to my mind, completely meaningless in terms of his real guilt or innocence [of what?]. Some of us would have liked him to push the US government to come up with credible evidence, but none of us should begrudge him the right to take any steps possible to remove himself from a profoundly corrupt and unregenerate regime.

Brendan O’Neill has claimed that the invasion of Iraq, which he at least admits was a political disaster, was motivated by ‘America's and Britain's search for some sense of mission and purpose where they have none at home’. While this may be partly true of Britain’s involvement, I suspect that America’s motives were rather different. The victim of a nasty punch from a force which it could only unsatisfactorily label as ‘terrorism’, the administration sought revenge, or if not revenge, at least the satisfaction of showing everyone it was still the toughest kid on the block. It bullied Afghanistan into submission, but that was all too easy, so it went for Iraq, an unpopular little runt who’d been showing plenty of cheek in the past. Others could protest about the bullying as much as they wanted, it was important to show who the boss kid was.

This might seem overly simplistic – and of course there are always going to be more nuanced voices within any administration – but I think it’s far closer to the money than claims about America’s struggle for an international role. It’s up to the international community, and America’s own citizenry, to show some solidarity in muzzling this sort of brutality.


pavlov's cat