Tuesday 30 April 2013

Hume's toe and the Enlightenment

                                                 You put your right foot in.....

Edinburgh boasts a statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile. I'm not often there and when I have been, I haven't paid much attention to it, but in a recent visit, I noticed a crowd of tourists touching his right foot in an act of homage.

Hume of course is the doyen of philosophy of religion courses, whether rubbishing proofs of God's existence in natural theology or undermining the status of miracles as evidence for revealed theology. I was therefore absolutely delighted that the arch sceptic now appears to be the object of worship so profound that the artificial patina on the right big toe has been worn away to reveal pristine bronze. (The effect is quite clear in the above photo.)

It only goes to demonstrate the truth of G. K. Chesterton's dictum: 'When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything.' As secularism spreads in the UK, we can confidently look forward to the increase of belief that Christopher Hitchens lies asleep in the basement of Broadcasting House, ready to rise again should any missionary try to help the dying. Or that a tincture made from the dried membrum virile of Richard Dawkins is a surefire cure for infertility.

Ain't Enlightenment wonderful?

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Success in Scottish midwives abortion case

The Court of Session decision to support the right of conscientious objection in the case of the Catholic midwives is extremely welcome (even though the case is highly likely to go to the Supreme Court for a final decision):

Giving the decision, Lady Dorrian said: “In our view, the right of conscientious objection extends not only to the actual medical or surgical termination but to the whole process of treatment given for that purpose. The right is given because it is recognised that the process of abortion is felt by many people to be morally repugnant...it is a matter on which many people have strong moral and religious convictions, and the right of conscientious objection is given out of respect for those convictions and not for any other reason. It is in keeping with the reason for the exemption that the wide interpretation which we favour should be given to it.” (The Scotsman here. SPUC comment here.)

The comments section of The Scotsman is already attracting the sort of 'if they don't want to kill babies they shouldn't be midwives' response which has typified much of the pro-abortion lobby on this. As I've argued before, it is the mark of a liberal society to encourage diverse attitudes and 'experiments in living' in a society, and, in general, conscientious objection is part of this. Moreover, it is perfectly possible to recognize that the deliberate taking of human life is an area which is 'morally charged': in the last war, even those who believed in the rightness of the  fight against Nazism recognized that those with a conscientious objection to killing were recognizing a shared value -that of the sacredness of human life- even if their reaction to that value in those precise circumstances of a just war was wrong.

One of the (many) problems with the politicization of any issue is that nuances and areas of agreement are ignored in the rush to present a viable campaign and opposition. I don't think that pro-abortionists, on the whole, are morally blinkered, thoroughly evil supporters of murder. I think they're morally wrong, but I understand that they are reacting (albeit, as I would see it, inadequately) to the sort of values that I too recognize, in particular, suffering and the treatment of women. But equally they should recognize that the anti-abortion side is reacting to a value that they too should acknowledge: that the deliberate killing of a human being where, in normal circumstances, that death would be regarded as a tragedy and a cause for sympathizing with a mother's loss, is a bad thing. 

I'm not a pacifist. My own view of conscientious objection in the last war is that it was a mistake and even a failure in the moral duty of protecting innocent life from aggression. But I don't think that conscientious objectors were insane or thoroughly evil because I understand and even share their motivation -up to a point. That's why it's right that, where possible, their views and consciences were respected. From the point of view of the pro-abortion lobby, I appreciate that the midwives too are mistaken. What I find rather more difficult to understand is the desire -how widespread it is I'm not sure- to compel them to kill against their deeply held beliefs where there is no overwhelming necessity to compel their participation.

[Update: Neil Addison gives a legal analysis here.]

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Secularism and school assemblies

I'm sure not all atheists are unChristmas grinches, snuffling around trying to make everyone's life just that bit more difficult and a bit less interesting. But still....

Veronica Wikman has apparently started up a petition in Edinburgh to remove religious observance from non-denominational schools. Another Edinburgh parent, Gary Bennett, has in response started a petition to keep it.  The Church of Scotland has come out in favour of retaining such observance, admittedly with a description of an activity that sounds remarkably like the sort of thing Archdruid Eileen might come up with after one too many camomile teas:

The Church of Scotland supports guidance from the Scottish Government regarding religious observance in schools.

It says that religious observance events should be inclusive of all faiths and none. It should allow pupils and staff the opportunity to explore what spiritual development means for them.

This is why the Church of Scotland supports the suggestion of the government that schools should consider using descriptions such as “time for reflection” rather than religious observance in schools to highlight the inclusive nature of these events. (Full text here.)

I've talked before about how 'secularism' is rather a vague aspiration. Here, Wikman uses the term in what is rapidly becoming its default meaning: the total exclusion of religion from the public space.

Yet according to a recent YouGov poll, 63 per cent of respondents in Scotland want a secular education system, and consequently wish to see assemblies removed from their children’s education.

Now, why should the practice of religion be excluded from schools? Wikman paints a terrifying picture of young children being assaulted by the serried ranks of religionists:

Young children are intellectually immature and have open, impressionable minds. They are also socially primed to accept as fact whatever an adult in authority tells them. This means that they are particularly vulnerable to all forms of indoctrination, whether political or religious.

Religious observance has nothing to do with education, but everything to do with religious indoctrination. This is exemplified in brutal clarity by the “Light Dispels Darkness” assembly resource that seeks to condition children to develop a fear of darkness, to associate darkness with evil and discomfort and light with hope and safety. Unsurprisingly, the concept of “light” is represented by a church candle. This resource was first created by the Church of Scotland in 2007 under the title “Light Dispels Dark” and the almost identical version, mentioned above, was published by Education Scotland in 2010.

             Fear of light bulbs: one of the many terrifying effects of religious indoctrination...

The full horror of this brainwashing can be found here (PDF). Now, clearly, as a Catholic, anything other than daily flagellations and autos-da-fé are going to be inadequate as forms of religious observation. But quite why Wikman think that a resource whose rationale is

Light and dark have connotations of good and evil. At many levels, we
face light and dark daily. A confident, optimistic, energising attitude
requires hope. Hope is born when we recognise that light dispels

and where absolutely no mention is made of God or Jesus is indoctrination rather than a fairly harmless form of blethering is beyond me.

Any communal activity involves chafing. When my children attended a non-denominational school, we had regular conversations along the lines of, 'Well, they're telling you this because they think x, but as Catholics we think they're wrong and that y is the correct position.' One of my children was made to 'feel anxious and left out' when his primary school teacher told him that Christian Churches didn't have tabernacles. (Actually, he couldn't have cared less although he was a bit mystified. We simply explained that a) the teacher probably wasn't familiar with Catholic practice; and b) Protestants didn't have the same understanding of Communion because.... And that was all

There is a more serious point behind all this. How do we establish public spaces in our schools where we actually do and say things (rather than avoid everything except an eight hour silence) and yet allow all children to be included? Wikman like fellow members of the National Secular Society assumes that the best public space is one where religion is excluded. But there's little reason to believe (unless you suffer from Wikman's apparently morbid fear of light) that the sort of milquetoast Protestantism on offer from the Church of Scotland isn't rather better at providing a public meeting space than Wikman's hypersensitive atheism. Scotland for the past 1500 years or so has been a Christian country. For the past 500 years or so, it has been a Protestant and Presbyterian country. To exclude that reality from schools is to diminish children's access to the past, and to diminish their flourishing.

That said, there clearly is something wrong with the Church of Scotland's current efforts. So let me make the following suggestion. As is well known, the blessed Richard Dawkins is in favour of the King James Bible being familiar to our children. I'm sure that, if he thought about it, he'd also be in favour of the Scots Metrical Psalter for similar cultural and historical reasons. So why not make the 'time for reflection' a sandwich of readings from the KJV and a couple of psalms from the Metrical Psalter? This would clearly satisfy everyone. Wikman and co would be able to regard this as simply a familiarization with the native mythology of Scotland and explain it as such to her photophobic offspring. Protestants would be able to regard it as a propaedeutic to worship: not quite the sort of thing that would exist in an ideal Christian commonwealth, but still a lot better than the alternative of pretending that Scotland's roots in Christian culture didn't exist or that worship is adequately characterized by lighting a tealight and humming kumbaya.

It would, of course, not exactly satisfy either atheists such as Wikman or Catholics such as myself. But, hey, as I said, communities chafe. I'm sure she'd be able to cope by introducing her child to her rightful inheritance as an atheist of regarding religious believers as a form of pond life that the Great Leap Forward of enlightenment will soon abolish, just as we coped by explaining to our children that not everyone is a Catholic and not everyone thinks the same thing about religion. In the meantime, all sets of children would be being familiarized with important aspects of Scotland's literary and musical culture.

(H/T: Coffee with Louis.)

Thursday 18 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher

I had been fighting shy of saying anything about Margaret Thatcher, in part because I do hold by the dictum 'de mortuis nil nisi bonum', in part because my feelings and thoughts about her are confused.

Much of the reaction to her seems less a reaction to her as a person and more as a reaction to her as a symbol of a number of political and social processes. The old dialectical materialist in me means that I can't quite shake off the view that history as personalities is concentrating on a mere epiphenomenon, whilst the real business of history chugs along somewhere in the socio-economic base.

So I'm going to concentrate on the representation of Thatcher, what she came to mean rather than what she can be said to have actually done. Here, her success seems to be based on an uneasy symbiosis between two elements: a Burkean traditionalism based on the appeal of little platoons (or, more exactly, little corner shops oop North); and a rampant capitalism based particularly on the financial centre of the City of London. Indeed, much of the appeal of the modern Conservative party has been based on those two aspects: a reassuring appeal to old certainties and an invigorating appeal to the creative possibilities of new wealth. Thatcher embodied the certainties, whilst the policies of her government, arguably, embodied the deracinating effects of globalized finance.

If we turn to the modern Conservative party north and south of the border, it's hard to see the embodiment of 'old certainties' anywhere in the current leadership. (That's unless you think that membership of the Bullingdon is likely to have to same popular appeal as a childhood of thrift and small town public service.)  Both Cameron and Davidson might prattle on about being conservative, but both are too clearly (and deliberately) trying to modernize the party for this to be convincing: in any case, party researchers and lesbian kickboxers just don't embody traditionalism in the same way as someone who at times seemed as though she'd just leaped out of Hobson's Choice, fresh from lecturing John Mills about the virtues of hard work and married life as a cobbler:

Does this matter? Well, I suppose the cynic in me has always suspected that the modern Conservative party has disguised the class interest of the very wealthy under a veneer of social conservatism. So maybe if they've just got less good at it, that's something to be welcomed as an increase in transparency. On the other hand, the more charitable side of me thinks there is a genuine tension between social conservatism and an efficient economy -and better that tension is acknowledged and even incarnated than that is it simply brushed under the carpet.

On my best reading of the situation, in Scotland, the difficulty was compounded by the failure of the signifiers of Thatcher's social conservatism to be recognized as such in Scottish culture. What appealed to the English as signs of a small town, Poujardist sensibility tended to be read up here as Home Counties snobbery: in any case, she was just too English and thus there was no counterbalance to the other aspect of economic radicalism. There remains no sign at all that Scottish Conservatives have developed a Scottish language in which to express the appeals of social conservatism. (In passing, I don't think you can also underestimate the effect of the Orestes complex in politics and in the media: women at the centre of controversy tend to be disliked in a much more visceral way than men. Not just a Scottish thing, though.)

So much for Thatcher the symbol. Doubtless, there will be much more careful assessment of her and her influence over the coming years, both by historians and by Conservatives desperate to restore the flagging fortunes of their party. Of Thatcher the human being, however, the occasion of death ought to provide a moment of reflection on our tiny lives, ready to be snuffed out at a moment's notice, and on the sorrow and the pity of it all. For a Christian, the only appropriate response to that is prayer:

Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine et lux perpetua luceat ei.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Modernist architecture and Catholic Scotland

                                     St Peter's Seminary then. (St Peter's Seminary now.) 

Rather an interesting programme from Radio 4 about the Scottish architects, Gillespie Kidd & Coia, who were responsible for many modernist churches in Scotland, as well as the notorious St Peter's Seminary in Cardross. (Radio programme archived here -I assume available for at least the usual 7 days (ie until 14/04/13).)

Now that Easter and the papal election and the 'retiral' of Cardinal O'Brien have receded a little into the past, I suppose we really do need to think about how we should react to the Church crisis which may not really be a crisis after all. I posted previously about the need for 'solutions' to be accompanied by some explanation of how they're supposed to work and what they are aimed at. I also suggested that the main crisis in Scotland and elsewhere in the West is not some minor detail of administration or discipline, but the general issue of secularization and the Church's relationship to modernity. Pope Francis' election has provoked some spluttering in the more traditionalist corners of the Catholic blogosphere simply on the grounds that it is entirely clear that in 'style' (eg what shoes he wears and what type of cross he carries) he isn't a traditionalist. The anxieties this provokes are either that, very directly, such a lack of attention to tradition is part of a carelessness about liturgy which is central to the Church's failure to withstand secularizing modernity, or, less directly, that carelessness about inessentials is suggestive of a carelessness about other, more important aspects of Catholicism.

Putting that aside, the issue of modernist Church architecture in Scotland strikes me as a good concrete issue on which reflection may well provide a rather deeper insight into central issues.  I confess (as in so much else in my life) to being pulled in various ways on this. Tell it not in Gath (or Cumbernauld) but I'm quite fond of brutalist architecture. On the other hand, I'm allergic to those sorts of felt banners with designs that seem to have been made by the P3 embroidery class that infest many Scottish Churches, not to mention polyester vestments and liturgical dance. If you suggest to me (as one of the speakers on the radio programme does) that there is in principle a tension between on the one hand the desire of modernist architecture to strip out both meaning and the past and on the other hand the mission of the Church, I can see your point, but still.... Just not sure.

Linda Woodhead  (about 24 minutes into the programme) attempts to impose a narrative on the initial popularity of Gillespie Kidd and Coia with the Scottish Church and its subsequent fall from grace (ie the work dried up) as one of a failure of confidence: Vatican II opened things up, but the Church got frit and retreated to its bunker. Given that Woodhead goes on to say that the main problem for architecture is working out how to accommodate post-Christian spirituality in a built form, you can see that her agenda might well not be that of Catholicism. One point she misses is that modernist architecture has become generally unpopular: it is not just the Catholic Church which has rejected it, but also mainstream (ie secularized) society as well.

Anyway, a good programme which raises issues about the state of the Scottish Church in the post Vatican II era, the relationship between art and the Church, and the ongoing problem of the relationship between modernity and Catholicism. (Not of course that it solves them, worst luck.)

Further links:

Some photos of GK and C buildings: here  and here.

Wikipedia article on GK and C: here.

Monday 1 April 2013

Liebster award

Ben Trovato of Countercultural Father has done me the honour of nominating me for Liebster Award, the intent of which is to encourage blogs to link to each other and thus to increase their profiles.

The requirements are:

1) Post the Liebster award graphic on your site.
2) Thank the blogger who nominated the blog for a Liebster Award and link back to their blog.
3) The blogger then writes 11 facts about themselves so people who discover their blog through the Liebster post will learn more about them.
4) In addition to posting 11 fun facts about themselves, nominated bloggers should also answer the 11 questions from the post of the person who nominated them.
5) The nominated blogger will in turn, nominate 9 other blogs with 200 or less followers (We’re guessing for our nominees) for a Liebster award by posting a comment on their blog and linking back to the Liebster post.
6) The nominated blogger will create 11 questions for their nominated blogs to answer in their Liebster post.

(In order to avoid my victims from feeling overwhelmed by such tasks, I hereby, with the all the weighty authority imparted to me as a Google blogger, allow any of the above tasks to be ignored if you can't be bothered.)

So here goes!

1) Done!

2) Thank you, Ben! Quite apart from my eagerness to receive any sort of recognition from any quarter (I'm reminded of a phrase from one of the Richmal Crompton William books which commented on one of Robert's girlfriends as devouring compliments as eagerly as a monkey devours nuts), I'm particularly pleased to get it from a blogger who manages to combine incisive comment with that mature Catholic balance that I can only aspire to. Ben's excellent blog is here.

3) Facts:

i) I prefer rats to hamsters as pets.
ii) Brought up an atheist/agnostic, became an Anglican as an adult, converted to Catholicism.
iii) I was baptized only when I was four. There were two competing explanations I was given for this: a) my father being an atheist didn't want me baptized but eventually did so to smooth my path into a local school with an evangelical head; b) my parents didn't bother at first because they thought I was going to die.
iv) I have never broken a bone. (On further reflection, I have. Damn. But it was only a very small one.)
v) I don't know if it's my favourite book, but David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus still exerts a fascination on me.
vi) Again, I'm not sure whether he's exactly my favourite composer, but Benjamin Britten is probably the composer whose music I find most attractive. (Or perhaps Schubert.)
vii) 'Our song'. Me and Mrs L have always been quite partial to Public Image Ltd's 'This is not a love song'. (That's not a comment on the state of our marriage which is Edenic in its perfection. I suppose we simply enjoy the irony of having a love song which is not a love song. We are indeed that sophisticated.)

viii) Favourite malt: Laphroaig.
ix) Favourite philosopher: Aristotle.
x) I still haven't made up my mind on how to vote in the Scottish Independence referendum.
xi) I'm a rubbish swimmer.

4) Ben's Questions:

What inspired the title of your blog?

I was mulling over the current state of Catholicism in Scotland at a funeral when the singing of In paradisum provoked a minor epiphany: I would blog, I would do so under the handle of 'cum Lazaro' and everything would be all right. (That worked well, didn't it?)

Why should people read your blog?

I try to combine philosophically literate comment on public life with a focus on Catholicism in Scotland. Fortunately,  I also ramble on about whatever hits me at the time, thus raising my potential audience to more than that strange bloke I chat to down the pub. (Given the modern age, I also talk about sex a lot, which provokes much passing traffic, although doubtless leaving said traffic slightly disappointed at what it finds.)

What is your personal favourite post on your blog?

I quite like 'Policing the queer'. It suggests a moral argument for the existence of a slippery slope in same sex 'marriage' that I think both logically valid and not previously acknowledged. In other words, proponents of same sex 'marriage' really ought to be committed to a slippery slope if they're being consistent.

What has been the most popular (most viewed) post on your blog?

Abortion, pictures and virtue ethics.

Which post on your blog has attracted most comments?

Why I am an atheist.

What other hobbies or interests (beyond blogging) are you prepared to admit to?

I'm rather addicted to trashy TV sci-fi and horror.

What are your hopes for the new pontificate?

That it will display another facet of the Church's mission without undoing all the good work of previous Popes. (And I'm extremely hopeful that this will in fact be the case.)

Where is your favourite place of pilgrimage, and why?

St Andrews. It is the most visible reminder of  mediaeval Catholic Scotland, and its links with that common Catholic European culture.

Who is your favourite spiritual author, and why?

My younger self would have immediately answered Dostoyevsky on the ground of his portrayal of the agony of the life. I suspect in a few years time I'll answer Dante on the ground of his portrayal of the tension between our human nature and the divine. At the moment, I'm somewhere between the two.

Which of these questions did you find it most difficult to answer?

The last. I'm not sure what 'spiritual' means, I'm not sure I'm in favour of that sort of thing, and I'm worried that the answer I've given isn't exactly true and isn't well articulated. (But it is an honest attempt.)

Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?

No, although I came extremely close to joining in my teens. (Dissuaded by my father on the grounds it might stop me getting into the US at some later date.)

5) Other blogs.

This requires three sorts of apology:

i) To those secretly behemothic blogs that I have mistakenly identified as having fewer than 200 followers. Please accept the compliment even if it is misdirected!
ii) To those who have already been nominated by others. Please forgive my lack of attention!
iii) To those omitted. No insult intended: there are blogs I haven't included that I enjoy immensely but haven't included either because I think you're well known already, realize you've been previously nominated or because, as a professional idiot, I haven't included you out of some other very stupid reason! (Such as stupidity.)

i) Spirit of Teuchtar II Catholic, Scottish blog
ii) JabbaPapa's Catholic blog Catholic blogger whom I've long admired for his comments on the Catholic Herald site and elsewhere.
iii) All Along the Watchtower Now a team blog focusing on Christianity, but started (and given its positive atmosphere) by the excellent Jessica Hof.
iv) Armarium Magnum 'This blog aims to be a repository for book reviews, mainly of books on ancient and medieval history'. Doesn't post often but when he does, it's worth reading.
v) A Grain of Sand 'An insomniac Scots Calvinist looks at the Church and the world and wonders where it all went wrong'
vi) Catholic Reading Group. OK. Guess!
vii) The Thirsty Gargoyle Relentless scholarly patience placed at the service of the Church.
viii) Catechesis of Caroline Probably too well known to be included here, but still one of my favourite Catholic blogs.
ix) QuietRiotGirl OK, I suspect many of my readers would find this 'strong meat' (ie wrong) but I admire her intellectual integrity, verve and humour. (And the contrarian in me enjoys her deployment of queer theory to undermine the shibboleths of the modern age.)

6) Questions for those whom I have nominated:

1) What inspired the title of your blog?
2) What is your personal favourite post on your blog?
3) What has been the most popular (most viewed) post on your blog?
4) Which post on your blog has attracted most comments?
5) What other hobbies or interests (beyond blogging) are you prepared to admit to?
6) What's your favourite song?
7) What's your favourite novel?
8) Complete this sentence: 'I think religion is....'
9) How good a dancer are you?
10) Which do you prefer: tea or coffee?
11) Have you ever been a smoker? (Of tobacco...!)