Wednesday, 30 September 2015

What is religion all about?

That's a big title to use to yoke three minor pieces together.

Let's start here, with TS Eliot talking about a now forgotten attempt by AN Whitehead to reconcile 'religion' and 'science'. It seems that Whitehead had developed some idea to the effect that science requires there to be some ultimate Principle of Concretion, which is what we call "God", and so 'religion' and 'science' sit together very happily. As Eliot points out, a Principle of Concretion is wholly incapable of starting a religion. "If Professor Whitehead were a Christian, instead of what he obviously is, merely the descendant of Christians, he would know that there is no such thing as “religion,” and that to prove the existence of God, even to prove that God is the wholehearted supporter of “science,” is to do nothing at all for religion. ... God is certainly essential to some religions, as the King is essential in the game of chess. But the most important things in any religion, and certainly the most important ideas in the Christian religion, are not derivative from the notion of God." There is more of this, rather Chestertonian stuff, at the link.

So if religion is not so much about God, what is it about? Well, it seems to be about ritual. If you are no more familiar with ritual than with the Principle of Concretion then that might not be a very helpful thing to say. But perhaps you are familiar with computer games? Then might be a good way in: "by offering a voluntary, temporary experience of guidance, of certainty—of purpose, however arbitrary—video games, for Leibovitz, demonstrate “innate theological sensibilities.” Rather than being driven by boredom, or bureaucratic routine, or—as the most alarmist critics have claimed over the years—bloodlust, “video game players are guided by grace.” Indeed, video games are “like religion,” and playing them is like going to church, or even praying: “Video games…are closer in spirit to ritual than they are to any other human pursuit.”" That is from this interesting piece about computer games. (You know Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary killer who really liked computer games? His favourite seems to have been a cheerful dancing game.)

Ok, but what about religion as actually practised by people who actually do it. What's that all about? This is from someone who knows something about it: "My first “welcome to America” moment occurred when I invited an imam to my Introduction to Islam class at Columbia Theological Seminary.The imam talked about the basic tenets of Islam for an hour and asserted, among other things, that Jesus is not the Son of God, denied that he was crucified, and maintained that the Bible has been falsified. My students listened respectfully throughout the lecture. When he paused and invited discussion, the students replied with rather timid and politically correct queries, at which point the imam said: “Why are you not asking me about jihad, about terrorism, women? I know you have all these questions. Why are you not asking me the hard questions?” So one student queried him about Islamic teaching on homosexuality. The imam answered by defining the practice as un-Islamic, not of God, unnatural. Suddenly, the faces of a good number of the students went red with shock and rage. I stepped in and gently steered the discussion away from the topic. ... As I look back upon the whole episode, I think I ended up more unsettled than my students. They were agitated by what the imam said about homosexuality, but seemed wholly at ease with his negation of fundamental Christian beliefs. If this were a seminary in Ghana, my home country, the reverse would have been the case." I don't know how big Dance Dance Revolution is in Ghana. Bigger than the Principle of Concretion, probably, but smaller than the Bible.

And on the other hand, here are some Catholics in New York today and Dorothy Day and WH Auden in New York in the past (and not Doris Day, as I first mis-read).

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Honour, dignity and victimhood

"I don't know how the baker's boy got down, but I do know that he missed the cart, and got into the very hottest of hot water when he turned up at last at the bakehouse. I am sorry for him, but, after all, it was quite right that he should be taught that English boys mustn't use their feet when they fight, but their fists." (Five Children and It, first published 1902.) 

I was reminded of this passage, which struck me more forcefully when I re-read it in 2015 than when I first read it in 1980-something, by reading this.

Friday, 25 September 2015


Various recent interesting things about inequality.

(1) Elite Americans don't care about it, even if they are very left-wing. "Yale Law students’ overwhelming, indeed almost eccentric, commitment to efficiency over equality is all the more astonishing given that the students self-identified as Democrats rather than Republicans—and thus sided with the party that claims to represent economic equality in partisan politics—by a factor of more than 10-to-1".

(2) It turns out that there's not much of it in Britain, not really, not if you bear in mind that "poorest in any given year are not always poor for their entire lives" (e.g. students, unemployed between jobs, pensioners). (It's a bit like how the rise in the minimum wage helps a lot of people who are not in need of it, e.g., dabbling second earners in well-off households and students on their summer jobs.) Interestingly, although "the benefit cuts of the late 1980s reduced benefits and increased cross-sectional inequality, it had a much more muted effect on lifetime inequality. And, similarly, although Gordon Brown's massive expansion of means-tested tax credits in the 2000s reduced cross-sectional inequality, they had very little impact on cutting lifetime inequality."

(3) Finally, it's all going to be reduced massively across the world because, just like after the Black Death, there are going to be many fewer workers.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A miscellany of links

1. You know that chap who got 14 years for Libor fixing? Here is a rather compelling account of his downfall.

2. Economics - the essentials.

3. Elephants. At the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, I wish someone would get on with translating between human speech and elephant speech. "Greg, full of confidence and top of the hierarchy, would take his position at the head of the water trough. The other bulls would approach, placing their trunks in his mouth in greeting. Having paid their respects, the lower-ranking males could relax and drink their fill."

4, It's become one of those glib things people say: we used to imagine that it would be the state enforcing surveillance on us, like a giant Panopticon, but in fact we have chosen to do it with our mobile phones, and so you get to (a version of) 1984 from the bottom up, not the top down. Maybe. But Brave New World always struck me as more plausible - and here it is.

5. Thoughts on multi-tasking. This triggers a series of half-formed thoughts in me. Once I have cleared away some other stuff I'll ... hang on, an email has just come in.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Words used to mean their opposites

"Is there a word in the English language that more reliably means its opposite than ‘amicable’?

Twitter responses included: “moot,” “humbled,” “nice,” “my friend,” “nonplussed,” “cordial,” “priceless,” “tolerance,” “literally,” “spry,” “sincerely,” “honest,” “pal,” “sure,” and “Fine” particularly when given as a one word answer.

Tyler Cowen's favourite is "spry". "Respectfully" was the one that came to mind for me, and gets a mention in the comments. 

Why We Hate Cheap Things

This piece is by Alain de Botton - but please do not let that put you off. There is an interesting observation buried in the de Bottonishness.