A battle against ideas??

There’s an anti-intellectual, anti-ideas, anti-authority (academic as well as political) mood out there, encouraged and fired up by the media. In the USA by Fox and shock-jocks, and Trump and his cohorts. In the UK by much of the popular press and, sadly, by Brexit campaigners. See below for two contributions, both with Facebooks videos, which highlight the dangers such attitudes present.

One, a Barack Obama speech to the Rutgers University Class of 2016. ‘In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about… But when our leaders express a disdain for the facts, when they are not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, when actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem.’

See: https://www.facebook.com/BusinessInsider.Politics/videos/1015027085240290/

As seen from the UK – ideas are out of fashion, reliable sources of information are cast as biased, or worse – establishment. Boris’s suggestion yesterday that Cameron had bought the support of big business by offering government contracts is the latest, and most absurd, example.

There have been dubious claims from leaders on the Stay side. But the weight of misinformation put out on the Brexit side takes some beating.

Almost every organisation of note, business and European, every country in Europe, groups like the Five Eyes security group (UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) – they have all come out in favour of staying in. Are they all tainted, biased, dishonested, bribed? Are they all to be damned as elitist and establishment?

Obama’s is a rallying-cry, and a reminder of what we stand to lose.

And, two, there’s a Brexit ‘film’ doing the rounds… It begins with the words, ‘We, the people are being cajoled… into surrendering our democracy and freedom.’ ‘The EU is turning into a dictatorship.’ But, given that we’re a key member of the organisation, the selfsame EU, which determines those regulations, and if we leave we’ll have them foisted on us, it’s a very dubious argument.

Happily you don’t have to put up with any further commentary from me. There’s a very good riposte: https://www.facebook.com/scientistsforeu/videos/787984157970262/

If Scientists for EU will forgive me I’ll quote the first paragraph:

‘The whole documentary is about the need for deregulation. It’s fundamentally a neoliberal infomercial, painting history through the mantra of deregulation leads to growth and regulation leads to stagnation. They tell us that the EU is over-regulated, so we need to get out – and then we will economically prosper. That’s the thesis. The only problem is that they have no business/ economist backing whatsoever. Instead of interviewing CEOs of Airbus, Rolls-Royce, etc (all of which have come out for Remain), the documentary interviews just the standard clique of Nigel Lawson, Daniel Hannan, James Delingpole, Nigel Farage, etc… Politicians and right-wing journalists – with Kate Hoey thrown it.’

Do check it out.

 

Militant atheism and the spiritual path

Now that is quite a a title for a post…

I’ve just finished reading Sam Harris’s Waking Up – subtitle ‘searching for spirituality without religion’. When he claimed Chris Hitchens as a friend, I was instantly worried. And then I had the usual stuff about religions being mutually incompatible so no-one can possibly believe that ‘all religions are the same’. Well, we don’t believe they’re all the same – but we do find an underlying unity. He should have asked us first – but he hares off on the hackneyed ‘violence of religion’ tack, and even finds a Zen story where a disciple hacks a finger off – and then is suddenly enlightened.

The sad thing is that Harris has gained some kind of spiritual understanding over many years as a seeker and meditator, and he’s especially keen on, and good at describing, Dzogchen Buddhism (‘focusing on the intrinsic selflessness of awareness’). But he fails completely to recognise that it’s a specifically religious search for understanding in this life that led to the revelations that he now, as a militant atheist, has the benefit of.

And then we have the following on drugs: ‘The power of psychedelics is that they often reveal in a few hours depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.’ Having been down that route, and experienced the ecstasy, I know that selflessness – the experience of non-self, anatta – and drug-induced ecstasy are two very different things. The path – I almost want to say ‘true path’, but that really does sound too religious! – is step-by-step, unfolding, learning, consolidating – I say learning, but it’s not learning in the sense of acquiring knowledge – it is simply that awareness that opens up beyond self. And where you find a differently kind of joy and peace from anything you’ve experienced before.

And a final grumble – no, more than a grumble. This is serious stuff. Reading a review of John Bew’s book, Realpolitik: A History (premise – pragmatism dictates that the overtly and obviously moral route can’t always be the one to follow – politics has sometimes to be about compromise), there’s a reference to Barack Obama drawing on the wisdom of the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama has tried to articulate a liberal realist world view – avoiding misconceived adventures on the one hand and isolation on the other…

Why is that relevant to Sam Harris’s book? Because Harris and his like go on about the evils of religion but overlook that it’s not violence but compassion that drives religion. And that the spiritual without compassion is selfish and not selfless. Compassion has to be at the heart of politics, and I believe that Obama has tried to do just that, and his successes and failures are indicative of how hard it is to follow that path in today’s world – and yet how essential it is to try.

Religion when taken over by the power-brokers of the world for their own ends has caused many a disaster. But religion allied to compassion, in the minds of a follower, disciple or believer (however you wish to describe yourself), has been the ultimate force for good in the world. (Now that I admit is a challenging statement – and meant to be such!)

I heard Steven Pinker speak about his then new book, Better Angels Of Our Nature, a year of two back. It’s predicated (and brilliantly argued) on the role of violence in human history – how over centuries and millennia we’ve created social and political structures to contain that violence, allowing the creation of stable, or relatively stable, societies and government. (And how violence continues to decline, even allowing for two world wars and many other horrific events.)

Pinker argues that the primacy of reason and enlightenment values from the 18th century onwards allowed empathetic values, not least compassion, to find expression. The pattern of history for me is very different – violence and compassion have existed side by side throughout recorded history – compassion is hardly a recent phenomena, and it’s in the exercise of that compassion that we as human beings have found our greatest fulfilment.

Compassion and religion have always been closely interconnected. And if you’re a militant atheist, that poses a problem.

My recommendation to Sam Harris would be – get off your podium, stop preaching, and get out there in the world. And if you do, you’ll find yourself working alongside some wonderful people – of all faiths, and none, including humanists. We all work together. We just don’t call each other names.