Saturday, July 18, 2009
I am away for two weeks climbing. Normal service resumed after that....

What have you learnt from literature?

Friday, July 10, 2009
I read a piece in the Observer a week or so ago in which an author with a background in psychotherapy said she had learned more about human psychology from Conrad, Shakespeare, etc than from Freud, Yung, et al. It is often said that we learn a great deal from novels.

But what do we learn, exactly? What kind of "truth" do novels contain?

I can see that if I read a story about a killer, that laid out how he became a killer in such a way that I can see that I too could have ended up like him, then I have learned something valuable. I can also see that I might read about a concern someone has in a story that I share, but thought was unique to me, and so learn that I am not alone in having such thoughts and feelings. I can also see that I might have a feeling that I find difficult to articulate, and in a novel find a perfect expression of it. "Yes!" I might think, "That's how I feel". Novels can also provoke us to think about things we might not otherwise have considered. These are ways in which I could learn something, gain some insight.

On the other hand, novels are stories. And stories can be propaganda, even unwitting propaganda. Literature can be used to tell lies about the human condition. A skilled writer may, by pressing our emotional buttons, make us feel sympathy for a cause we should revile, or make what is wrong seem right or normal, for example.

Literature is about a good yarn with a beginning a middle, and an end, a strong character that develops, and so on. Real life rarely has these features. People rarely change, and when they do, rarely change in the ways that a good story requires. The real explanations for why people do things are rarely as dramatically satisfying and neat as those for fictional characters. When people write biographies or dramatized accounts of real events, real life has to be very heavily edited and shoe-horned into the conventions of literature, so that we get a good story. Either that or the author has to search hard for one of those unusual episodes or lives that actually meets the requirements of good literature.

So isn't literature, in many ways, profoundly misleading, providing the illusion that real life has a clear narrative structure, a plot, a moral, is driven by psychological principles, etc., that are actually rarely if ever present in real life?

Isn't the "psychology" it presents, often as not, mythical, rather than actual, reflecting what an all-too fallible individual, the author, thinks makes people tick, rather than what actually makes them tick?

Indeed, aren't we just endlessly presented with the same stock of archetypal plots and characters over and over again, which function as cultural sign-posts for us: "Oh, it's a story about a quest, and X is the flawed hero, and he learns this sort of lesson as he pursues the quest...". Even when a story deviates from these archetypes, doesn't it succeed precisely by deliberately flouting them - by revealing itself to be of another archetype, rather than the one it initially appeared to be (the plot with a "twist").

Anyway, these reflections lead me to ask: given that people regularly claim to have learned so much about the human condition and psychology from literature (novels), what's the most important thing you have learned? Is there a novel you were reading, when suddenly you were struck by a rather profound insight? If so, I'd be interested to know.

My suspicion is that, because people always say that learned this profound stuff from novels, but seem rarely if ever to provide an actual example of something they learned, that actually the profound truths and insights contained with novels are largely, if not entirely, mythical.

Of course I know this will provoke howls of outrage from literary types and that I shall be branded a philistine. I am just asking, that's all... If the insights are there let's have some examples. Otherwise, I'm thinking "Emperor's New Clothes" (ok, there's an insight right there!).

Remember - it's genuine penetrating insights I am after, not statements of the bloody obvious dressed up in literary garb.

Moral Maze tonight

Wednesday, July 8, 2009
I am on the Moral Maze Tonight - BBC Radio 4. 8.00pm-8.40pm. I am on towards the end. The topic is whther religious folk should be exempt from e.g. equal opportunity laws.

Alps Beckoning

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Week and a half and I am off to Chamonix climbing. This one is of the Midi-Plan traverse.

Homosexuality and religion

Monday, July 6, 2009
Interesting post from anticant who has read: Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East by Brian Whitaker (Saqi Books, 2006)

Sunday Times - nasty piece on Camp Quest

Sunday, July 5, 2009
The Sunday Times has run a very poisonous piece against Camp Quest - a kid's summer camp run by Samantha Stein, to which kids of all faiths and none are welcome.

Go here.

Dawkins did not set up the camp, and has nothing at all to do with it - other than he donated towards it (not a huge amount, I know).

The word "grooming" applied to children (other than hygiene and neatness) is of course used to indicate child sexual abuse.

A fairer report here.

Camp Quest looks excellent to me. Samantha Stein is fantastic (nb.. having talked to her about it - the camp is open to all faiths, and focuses on thinking skills and a skeptical approach to answering questions, not on religion-bashing per se. It's about immunizing kids against purveyors of snake oil and bullshit - be it religious, atheist, or otherwise). And it's a bargain too.

NSS sets the record straight here: "Camp Quest Under Attack. Dawkins' response here.

Is Judaism racist? Or is it racist to say Judaism is racist?

Interesting piece in the Guardian yesterday.

The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, issued a rallying cry for Jews today to defend their schools from English law after the court of appeal decided that admission on the basis of a parent's Jewish status was discriminatory. Writing in this week's Jewish Chronicle, he condemned the ruling, saying it branded Judaism "racist".

Go here.

Who is being racist, if anyone? I take racism to be unjustified discrimination on the basis of race (note "unjustified" - there's nothing racist about, e.g. targeting treatment for an illness on the particular race that suffers from it).

Sacks' line seems to be that Jewish schools discriminate on the basis of religious orientation, not race, and this boy was not technically of Jewish faith because (i) his mother was not Jewish, and (ii) neither the boy nor the mother had converted by an appropriate mechanism.

The idea that having a Jewish mother is sufficient to make you Jewish, in the sense required for entry into a Jewish school, or Israel, surely is a criterion based on "race" rather than belief (assuming schools don't also require religiousity - which Israel doesn't, I believe). Neither your mother nor your mother's mother, etc. need be a believer. Just a member of the right "race". So the charge of racism might stick.

But only if this discrimination on the basis of "race" was unjustified.

It's possible that, by this criterion, many contemporary Palestinians are Jewish (it would depend on when the Jews as a "race" began - if the answer is more then 8K years ago...). Go here and here:

About two-thirds of Israeli Arabs and Arabs in the territories and a similar proportion of Israeli Jews are the descendents of at least three common prehistoric ancestors who lived in the Middle East in the Neolithic period, about 8,000 years ago.

I use "race" in scare quotes because I am unsure precisely what a "race" is in this context, given the very close ancestry and genetic inheritance of supposedly different "races".

I am by no means expert on precisely what Jews believe about the nature of Jewishness, so if I have got something wrong, apologies and do please correct me.

POST SCRIPT. Notice Sacks insists that the discrimination is religious not racial. However, the school's own website makes the actual judgement clearer:

"the Court decided that, since the test of who is a member of the Jewish faith is based on descent or conversion, it is a racial test."

Notice "by descent". It is sufficient that you be descended on the mother's side from someone of the Jewish faith. But by how many generations? If neither your mother nor your grandmother were practising Jews, you still get to go to the school if great-grandma was. This is, in effect, discrimination on the basis if being ethnically Jewish. If you are - you're in (even if you and your Mum are atheists). If you're not, well you or your mother (or grandmother, etc.) have to pass a faith test. This is ethnic or racial discrimination - whether or not justified (argue that it is, if you like). It's ethnic discrimination dressed up as faith-based discrimination.

The school says:

"any criteria based on membership of the Jewish faith has been held by the Court to be unlawful,"

That is not true, it seems to me. If the school applied only a genuinely faith-based test (as other religious schools do), that would presumably be ok. But this school also says it is sufficient to gain entry that you be ethnically/racially Jewish. If it simply drops that racial or ethnic criterion, it is presumably back within the law. What's being legally objected to is discrimination in favour of a race or ethnic group.

In Sacks article, he says:

"if Jewish schools are compelled by English law to impose a test of religious practice instead of the existing test of membership of the Jewish faith, they will no longer be able to teach the Jewish faith to those who have little or no experience of practising it."

Correct. Ethnic Jews who aren't practising won't be able to get in to the school, if non-ethnic Jews who aren't practising can't either (just as non-practicing Catholics can't get into many Catholic schools). Trouble is, Sacks has no interest in teaching the Jewish faith to non-ethnic Jews with little or no experience of practising it, but who want to attend the school. He wants them banned as pupils. Why?

Because they are not ethnically Jewish. That's the legal problem.


Perhaps the discrimination could be defended like this. A Jewish school teaches a Jewish heritage. And, arguably, those that are ethnically Jewish should get first dibs. In the same way that e.g. a college teaching about African-American heritage might argue African Americans should get first dibs on places, as its their own heritage that's being taught (but that analogy is not quite right, as Jewish schools don't just put ethnic Jews first in line, they actually prohibit non-Jews from attending).

POST POST POST SCRIPT. Notice by the way, that Sacks defines someone as being of the Jewish "faith", and passing the "faith" test (you are thereby a "member of the Jewish faith"), if you are militantly atheist, are descended from a long line of atheists, but your mother's, mother's, mother's, mother's mother happened to be a Jew. That's obviously not really a "faith test" at all, as most of us would understand the phrase. It's a racial or ethnicity test. "Faith" is being defined in terms of bloodline.

POSTPOSTPOSTPOST SCRIPT. There is a much fuller and more informative report here. This is also helpful in explaining what being Jewish involves.

Morality Podcast

Thursday, July 2, 2009
Janet Radcliffe Richards looks at a fascinating range of new experiments shedding light on how humans make moral choices.

Go here.

Have not listened to it yet but JRR is always exceptionally good.

Vernon vs. Warburton on agnosticism

You can, for a short time only, hear a discussion on the Richard Bacon show between Mark Vernon (agnostic) and Nigel Warburton (atheist) on whether agnosticism is a cop out.

Go here and then hit "listen again" for Tuesday, and scroll through to about 2hrs 13 mins through to end (with interruptions).

You can read Mark Vernon's brief comment on his appearance on the show.

India decriminalizes homosexuality

Delhi High Court legalizes homosexuality
2 Jul 2009, 1050 hrs IST, TIMESOFINDIA.COM

NEW DELHI: In a historic judgement, the Delhi High Court on Thursday decriminalized homosexuality by striking down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

The Section 377 of the IPC as far as it criminalizes gay sex among consenting adults is violation of fundamental rights, said the high court.

Any kind of discrimination is anti-thesis of right to equality, said the court, while allowing plea of gay rights activists for decriminalization of homosexuality.

A bench of Chief Justice Ajit Prakash Shah and Justice S Muralidhar said that if not amended, section 377 of the IPC would violate Article 21 of the Indian constitution, which states that every citizen has equal opportunity of life and is equal before law.

Section 377, a law from the British Raj era, says homosexuality and "unnatural sex" is a criminal act.

While the home ministry wanted the petition to be dismissed, the health ministry supported its contention that section 377 criminalized homosexuality per se, it was obstructing the AIDS/HIV prevention efforts among high-risk groups. Whatever the outcome, this is the second time the Delhi high court will be pronouncing on Naz Foundation's petition against section 377. In 2004, it dismissed the petition at the preliminary stage stating that "an academic challenge to the constitutionality of a legislative provision could not be entertained." It further said that when no personal injury was caused to the petitioner by this provision, the petition could not be examined.

The foundation then approached the Supreme Court, which disapproved the manner in which the high court had disposed of the matter. SC observed that when there was a debate on this issue the world over, "where is the question of the petition being academic? We are not able to accept the approach of the high court that it is an academic exercise and there is no personal injury." Accordingly, in 2006, SC directed HC to reconsider the matter in detail. The judgment is coming close on the heels of statements from ministers on the possibility of a legislative intervention because of growing demands from the community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT). If the judgment serves the purpose of decriminalizing homosexuality, the government will be spared the burden of amending a provision laden with religious and cultural sensitivities.

Interestingly, in the new team of law officers appointed by the government, at least two of them — attorney general Goolam Vahanvati and additional solicitor general Indira Jaising —- have publicly supported the demand for decriminalizing homosexuality.

Baloney Detection Kit

Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Available from Michael Shermer here.