The Samovar

A peaceful view of religion
September 28, 2006, 3:05 am
Filed under: Politics, Religion

Andrew Morris writes in his article In good faith about the normal side of Islam, the peaceful side practised by almost all Muslims almost all of the time. He also talks in quite general terms about what motivates people to practise a religion, mentioning that belief in the existence of god is for the most part quite irrelevant.

The media is obsessed with those who preach and proclaim the `truth` of Islam, and concentrates on the outlandish personalities, the orthodoxies, the narrow interpretations, the perceived `mediaevalism` and `inflexibility` of the faith. But all that is a long way from people`s experience here, as they go about their daily lives, looking out for each other, complaining about the government, dodging cars, getting food on the table and kids into school. They care as much for dogma as your average Saturday shopper back home worries about the meaning of the Trinity.

In fact the question of whether religions are true seems almost irrelevant in this context. People observe religions not just because they represent `revealed truth` (an abstract concept for most), but because for them religion seems to work, just as it worked for their forefathers.

Thailand – not straightforward
September 25, 2006, 7:54 pm
Filed under: Politics | Tags:

I find the issue of the military coup in Thailand quite complicated and difficult. On the one hand, it is clear that Thaksin has been quite a corrupt and dangerous leader. On the other hand, his base of support (for whatever reason) seems to be the poor of Thailand, with the better off middle classes opposing him. Andre Vltchek argues this point of view in his article Old Elites Against New. So I don’t know – any points of view on this?

Religion, atheists and heirarchies
September 22, 2006, 4:41 pm
Filed under: Anarchism, Politics, Religion

I have been thinking about my manifesto entry on religion, and I want to throw out an idea relating to it.

Atheists are prone to blame religion for many of the world’s problems. I think that there is an element of truth to this, but it has nothing to do with what religious people actually believe. Belief in the existence of god doesn’t actually cause any problems. Instead, I think the problem is in heirarchies. I am an anarchist, so obviously I am against all forms of heirarchy, but my purpose in this entry is not so much to discuss the problems of heirarchies per se (I may do this in a future manifesto entry on anarchism), but to see how it relates to religion.

There are obvious heirarchies in religions of most (all?) sorts. However, there are other sorts of secular heirarchies. In the democratic West we have political elites, usually well off, educated at elite institutions, etc. I think that the 2.5 party system we have in the UK demonstrates the danger in this – we have two main parties which are almost identical in their policies, and one hanger on that feels it has to ape the policies of the two main parties to have a chance. In Communist revolutionary situations we have Vanguards which become bureaucratic heirarchies. etc. I think most people can see the danger of heirarchies, even if they might say that they are necessary.

The problem with heirarchies is that it puts one person above another, and this problem does not need an institutionalised heirarchy to exist. The atheist who mocks the religious for their belief in god (for instance by saying that it’s like believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden) puts him or herself intellectually above the believer. They have created a heirarchy in which rational, scientifically minded folk like themselves are a level above people who believe in god. This is a problem because you cannot have real communication with people at a different level to you in the heirarchy. The relationship will, from the point of view of the atheist, always be one of condescension. Explaining things to the poor little religious simpleton who can’t understand very well.

So far, not much new here, but I believe there is a way to resolve this problem. I think that we need to make a commitment to being against heirarchies. This commitment will take different forms for different people. Suppose I am stronger than you. My commitment to being against heirarchy consists in my believing that my strength shouldn’t put me on a higher level than you, even though in a one-on-one situation it does in a certain sense (that is, I can beat you up if you don’t do what I say). For the strong, this commitment means relinquishing the power that your strength gives you. This belief is now almost universally recognised.

Suppose though that I believe I am more intelligent than you are. Now, my commitment to being against heirarchies means believing that this does not put me on a higher level than you. It means accepting that you have an equal right in political decisions, in deciding your own fate, etc. It means accepting this even if you are in some way more qualified in doing so than they are.

So the rationalist atheist must make a personal, moral commitment not to put themselves above the theist, and this is a hard thing to do because all the evidence, everything they believe about reason and logic and so forth tells them they ought to. Similarly for the theist, they have to tell themselves that their belief in god doesn’t put them above the unbeliever. This can be very difficult for them too. For example, for someone who believes that life begins at conception, it is very difficult to talk to someone who believes in abortion. Think about the magnitude of holding both those ideas in your head at one time – that what you believe to be murder someone else believes not to be and that the right thing to do is not to make them see it your way. Both sides need to make this commitment and it is an extraordinarily difficult one to make.


Green taxes
September 21, 2006, 12:00 am
Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics

Apparently Menzies Campbell wants to scrap the Lib Dems policy of a 50% rate of tax on earnings over £150k in favour of “green taxes”, that is taxes on polluting behaviour. Given this, it seems like an appropriate time to ask the question: are green taxes sustainable?

Now, since he is proposing scrapping the 50% policy in favour of green taxes, he clearly expects to use the expected revenues generated as a basic part of his budget. Someone (I can’t remember who I’m afraid, it might have been Chris Doidge, but it might not), pointed out in an earlier conversation that either these taxes raise lots of money, in which case there must still be lots of polluting activity, or they fail to raise lots of money, in which case there would be a budget shortfall. Strictly speaking this isn’t true, it could be the case that you could expect to reduce polluting behaviour but not eliminate it, and anticipating the reduction in polluting behaviour as a consequence of these taxes you could estimate the revenues that would be produced. However, there does seem to be something slightly perverse about this (and do we really believe that they’re capable of doing these sorts of calculations?).

There is another problem. Presumably, we would hope that in the long term polluting behaviour would significantly reduce over time, which would mean that to maintain constant revenue rates from green taxes, we would have to increase these taxes over time to compensate. As the rate of taxation got ever higher, the illogic of the tax would become ever clearer, and eventually an alternative source of revenue would have to be found. In essence, the revenue generated by the green taxes would be used, presumably, for wealth redistribution, but rather than taxing the wealthy you would be taxing the polluters which seems unfair on the face of it.

So, although I am in favour of policies which reduce polluting behaviour, and I am in favour of wealth redistribution, I am not at all sure about this policy. It seems like a short term attempt to introduce stealth redistribution of wealth, which fails to address any systemic or long term problems. Perhaps it is justified as a short term measure because of the current right wing trend in politics though?

Manifesto: Religion
September 20, 2006, 11:57 pm
Filed under: Manifesto, Politics, Religion

First off, I am an atheist of possibly the logically strongest type. Not only do I not believe in the existence of god, but I deny even that the question of the existence of god is meaningful. In my opinion, the term “god” is a sort of glitch in our language. I may explain this view further in a later manifesto entry on truth and meaning.

That said, I do not share the view of the vocal minority of people who see religion as the source of all the world’s problems. This sort of view is common amongst otherwise progressive individuals, for example here:

I suspect that an world without religion would be peaceful and happy… As long as there is religion, there will be religionists who decide they need to kill others to fulfill their role within their religion

To be fair to the author, he does go on to say:

I include various patriotisms [Stalinism, Naziism, American Constitutionalism, etc.] under the heading of Religion

This view is deeply flawed, and surprisingly prevalent. First of all, it is deceptive of the author to include what he calls patriotisms under the general term religion. Religion is not a particularly badly defined term and this misusage of it is almost designed to cause confusion and misunderstanding.

The second problem is that this view marks out violence and hatred as the source of the world’s problems, and suggests that removing these problems would make the world a happy place. This view entirely leaves out exploitation, inequality, etc. Perhaps the author would argue that these are a form of violence, but even if we allowed this twisting of words, these sources of unhappiness do not flow from religion or nationalism, but from greed, capitalism, and so forth.

Finally, this view suggests that religion creates violence and hatred. In my view, religion is used as an excuse for war and hatred, but the determining factor is really something else (perhaps inequality). A correlation between the existence of conflict and strong religious beliefs has been observed, but this does not imply a causative link. Removing religion would not necessarily remove the conflict. The existence of major secular conflicts certainly suggests this. Nationalism provides a more accurate model for understanding conflict, but even this oversimplifies.

The view is a dangerous one. It makes it more difficult to understand what is going on in the world. If you are engaged in a conflict with a religious opponent and you take the view quoted above, you cannot understand the elements of rationality in their view. Differences become irreconcilable, and you are left with force as the only option. However, if the cause of the conflict were inequality or exploitation for example, other options become apparent. (Again, to be fair to the author quoted above, he concludes that “negotiation” should be considered, which is not the same thing at least as I see it. You “negotiate” with an enemy you cannot overwhelm.)

This view also makes communication more difficult. If atheistic progressives sneer at their religious counterparts, and the views quoted above certainly constitute a sneer, then dialogue is impossible. Is the atheist who supports his country’s football team or proclaims its culture superior to others really in a position to criticise the rationality of someone with a deeply considered spirituality?

So, while I personally believe that religion, founded as it is on the notion of god, is fundamentally flawed, I do not believe that we should set ourselves above those with religious faith. The way to solve our problems is not to seek the elimination of religion. (Again to be fair to the quoted author, he agrees with this sentiment.) Solving our problems requires that we look at the politics underlying them.

Manifesto: Democracy
September 20, 2006, 11:56 pm
Filed under: Manifesto, Politics

My basic position on democracy is summed up in the following quote, from a comment I made on this entry on Warwick blogs.


… my opinion on representative democracy is that it should be understood in historical terms. It is a step up from what came before it. It was fought for not because it would provide a perfect form of government but because it eliminated the worst excesses of the previous form of government. It doesn’t allow outrageous exploitation of an enormous majority of the population. This is an impressive achievement, but it doesn’t guarantee any more than that. I think the level of exploitation and inequality in capitalist democratic societies amply prove that it only manages to achieve this bare minimum and not a lot more.

I believe that we have to fight for democracy in two ways.

Firstly, we need to fight to protect what we have already got. This is particularly important in these days as our governments seek to overturn our liberties in the ‘war on terror’. Democracy is a fragile thing, and relies on the existence of many elements of our culture other than just voting. It relies on a free press, civil liberties, the rule of law, checks and balances, etc. It is easy to be complacent about it.

Secondly, we need to fight to improve our democracy. There is some hope that this is possible – the Porto Allegre participatory budget is an example of an innovative democratic project. We must also fight to overcome the undemocratic elements that already exist in our democracy; the effect of the two party system, the disproportionate influence of the wealthy and big business in politics, the systematic constraints on a truly free press (as described for instance by Herman and Chomsky in their ‘propaganda model’), etc.

The question has been raised as to whether or not it is possible or desirable to impose democracy on a country. My tentative opinion is that it is unreasonable to expect a country to make a quick transition from a repressive form of government to a Western style democratic one. The reason for this is that the only change that can quickly be made is the introduction of voting, and this is only one aspect of democracy. This is not to say however, that the attempt to make the transition is necessarily a bad thing to do, merely that we shouldn’t expect immediate results, and that we shouldn’t rely on the introduction of voting alone to solve long term problems.

Comments Off on Manifesto: Democracy

September 20, 2006, 11:51 pm
Filed under: Manifesto

As a way of introducing myself in this blog, I intend to post a series of entries which will form a manifesto of sorts. This will be mostly on politics – terrorism, security, privacy, capitalism, socialism, anarchism – but I may also include some manifesto entries on philosophy, and maybe even on cookery.

Once the manifesto is complete, the two main features of this blog will initially be politics and cookery. But, along the way I might find time to write about philosophy, films, books and poker. We’ll see how it goes, and whether or not anyone reads it.