Sunday, 26 January 2014

Blair: the religious terrorist

Tony Blair, writing in the Observer, offers us his thoughts on war and and religion.  He writes "religious extremism has become the biggest source of conflict around the world".  Can he possibly be right?

Let's take the war he knows most about: Iraq v. US/UK.  As we know, this was a unilateral attack in 2003 by the US and the UK led by Bush and Blair.  This war caused between 600,000 and one million Iraqis to die (estimates vary wildly - the BBC's More or Less podcast explains why).  We also know (see, for example, The Downing Street memo) that both these men lied to their people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (their justification for the war).  No doubt then that this war was a horrible example of aggression and that the BB leadership has to take full blame.  Where though does religion enter into the equation?

Blair himself is Roman Catholic and has admitted to praying to God when deciding whether or not to send UK troops to Iraq.  Presumably God gave him the go-ahead.  Bush, a born-again Christian when he was 40, is one of the most overtly religious presidents the USA has ever had.  There are very many examples of him claiming divine guidance during his presidency and at least one plausible claim that he believed he was charged by God to invade Iraq.

So maybe Blair has a point.

It could be, of course, that he doesn't see it quite in the way that I have presented it.  In his article he goes on to say "acts of terrorism are perpetrated by people motivated by an abuse of religion. It is a perversion of faith".  Oh, that's all right then.  As long as you commit acts of war not acts of terrorism, as long as you don't "abuse" your religion and as long as your faith is not "perverted" everything is fine and dandy.  Can Blair really subscribe to that sophistry?  At this very moment his own church is suppressing women throughout the world by doctrines that deny them access to manage their reproductive systems and thereby keep them in poverty.

No, Tony.  The Campaign to arrest Blair has got it spot on.  You are personally responsible for your actions.  You should face justice and you should stop hiding behind the cloak of your God.  Your article is self-serving hyprocisy and quite likely an attempt to begin the damage control that the Chilton inquiry is going to inflict on you when its report is made public this year.

But on a positive note: you are right in accusing religion as a cause of many wars.  Where you got it wrong was assuming that religions you don't subscribe to, and wars you are opposed to are because the religions became "perverted" or were "abused".  Christianity, Islam and Judaism (to name but three) have all done more than their fair share to deal out death, torture and destruction.  Would you care to widen your target and argue for their wholesale culpability?  And if you did that would you like to go the extra mile and denounce and renounce faith altogether?

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Why does the world exist

I have just finished reading "Why does the exist" by Jim Holt.  It is account of Holt's quest to find an answer to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", possibly the hoariest philosophical chestnut of them all.  Holt's research methodology is quite simple: he interviews a number of philosophers, scientists and other thinkers, listens to what they say, offers his slant on what each great mind has told him, and then hops off to the next guru on his list.  It's an interesting read as a survey of the very different answers to this great existential question and Holt presents the ideas in an engaging manner often lacing the details with personal anecdotes.  Despite this I was left with a bemused feeling that Holt's greatest achievement was to expose the uselessness of philosophical thought at least in this particular area.

I do not accuse the great thinkers interviewed by Holt as intellectual con-men.  However, I cannot help comparing them with thinkers and practitioners in the much narrower domain of theism.  In the latter domain we have a myriad of mutually contradictory faiths defended by their advocates with an impressive array of intellectual fire-power.  But of course we cannot take any of them seriously: if you are a Mormon your beliefs are totally at odds with a Sunni Moslem.  And for any other two religious faiths you will find a huge amount of disagreement.  And all this despite the lengthy education of their most notable exponents at esteemed centres of learning.

As Holt's book makes very clear this level of disagreement is present when the domain of discourse is existential philosophy.  The difference is that the individuals that feature in Holt's book are heavyweight intellectuals: they are clever enough to marshall an argument to build complex structures to explain our existence but none of them come up with the same structure.

I know that many of those interviewed by Holt's have reputations that they justly deserve.  But, cor blimey gov'ner, so far as throwing light on Holt's main question they are a load of posturing charlatans.

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Spirit Level: consequences of inequality

Over the last several years a very troubling social issue has boiled to the top of the political cauldron: the increasing income inequality in many countries of the world.  President Obama recently gave a speech in which he stated that reversing the growing gap between rich and poor was "the defining challenge of our time".  His speech did not, by any means, meet with universal approval.  For example, columns in the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic were sharply critical of the idea that inequality in itself was a problem, and also challenged that it was a growing condition.

Nevertheless it does seem to be established that income inequality has become much more pronounced since the Reagan-Thatcher years.  If you doubt this have a look at this very compelling presentation of the US situation.  There are many other statistical analyses and I think that you have to be completely blinkered not to accept that income inequality is a growing phenomenon.

But is it a "problem" that we should be working to solve?  Maybe income inequality is a motivator to make societies stronger or more efficient.  And how can we judge the arguments for and against when clearly this is an issue that is likely to be politically polarised with the left arguing on the basis of social equality and the right arguing on the basis of rewarding the most industrious?

I have just finished reading "The Spirit Level" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Theirs is not a political text but they do come down completely on the "Income inequality is harmful" side of the question.  They demonstrate, by a large number of statistical analyses, that income inequality is correlated with a host of societal evils (poor social relations, poor mental health and drug abuse, poor physical health and lower life expectancy, obesity, low educational performance to name just some).  They display their results in graphs that plot, country by country (or US state by US state) how income inequality is correlated with particular social evils.

Now correlation is not necessarily the same as causation but the authors do consider in depth whether some other causal agent than income inequality might be present.  Coupled with arguments for how income inequality can be so pernicious they come to the very strong conclusion that very many societal evils stem directly from income inequality.

This part of their book - the case for income inequality having such negative effects - is the main take-home message.  I found it entirely convincing, so convincing in fact that I believe every honest politician should acknowledge its validity.  The remainder of the book begins a discussion about what to do.  Of course this is much less clear-cut but I found it valuable for two main reasons.  The first one is that we should be aware that there are multiple types of solution not all of which would be unpalatable to those on the political right.  

The second one brings in the other flagship problem of our age: to come to terms with our now rapidly changing climate and the inevitable adjustments it will being to our way of life.  It turns out that yet another strong correlation (arguably causal) is that nations with greater income equality are more seriously inclined to pursue vigorous policies to address climate change.

So to underline the principal message of the book: every nation should be aware that  most of their social problems will be alleviated if they can institute measures to distribute their national wealth more equitably.  This is not the politics of envy - it is the politics of our very survival as a species.