Reactionary Visions

Sat, 27 Sep 2014

Reading highlights this week

I remember when I first went to University, coming across people who were both clearly extremely expert in their fields, from whom I wanted to learn, but were also religious, and how this utterly baffled me. At that point I would cheerfully describe myself as an avid atheist. My ignorance and naivety was somewhat extensive.

Over a decade later I like to think I have a more nuanced view. The most recent war in Gaza led, obviously, to vast amounts of suffering but some excellent articles on the subject (this one by Hadley Freeman in particular) helped me see perspectives more clearly and articulated how crucial it is to be precise with criticism: are you criticising a religion, a people, a government, a policy or something else? Nothing is ever black-and-white and it seems increasingly important to anticipate the consequences of an ill-thought-through comment or reaction. A good example of that is George Galloway's comments this week in the debate about this country once again getting involved in Iraq. On the face of it, and certainly without being remotely well-enough informed to evaluate the accuracy of his claims, if his claims on the size and makeup of ISIS/ISIL are true then there seems little likelihood that the bombing campaigns being discussed will be effective, and quite likely counter-productive. But all of that got lost due his description of Iraqis as quiescent. The way in which that description was seized upon by other MPs and the resultant media storm resulted in the over-shadowing not just of the rest of his contribution to the debate, but also of other important aspects of the debate, such as the resignation of Rushanara Ali (Labour's Shadow Minister for Education), citing once again the lack of a credible long-term plan for the region and our involvement.

Addressing the broader and somewhat more abstract issue is this enlightening article by Karen Armstrong. Again, I'm not claiming to be expert in the area, merely I found the article very educative. It had barely occurred to me that the western world's separation of the secular from the sacred was firstly such a recent occurrence, and secondly that it arose from a specific set of circumstances. There is no implicit reason why separation of state from church is an inevitable or even likely happenstance (to me, this reminds me of the question "if humans evolved from monkeys, then why can't we find monkeys still evolving into humans today?", to which the answer is "the circumstances are not right for that to occur"). The fact that the English word "religion" can't really be translated accurately into other languages (especially not languages that predate English such as Greek or Latin; as historically faith is all encompassing of life, not merely a private affair as we treat it today in the west) starts to show quite how odd the separation of secular from sacred in the modern west really is.

More interesting still is the observation that in the west, belonging to a Nation has in some ways subsumed the role of belonging to a Religion, only apparently with more positive overtones: we consider it almost reprehensible to die for your religion, but honourable to die for your nation. It would seem the concept of even belonging to a nation and having any sense of greater community outside your immediate surroundings only came about with the increased ability of governments to engage with (or intrude upon) their citizens. Before that point, presumably with church attendance widespread and frequent, one's interaction with "the wider world" was through the representative of the church. This would seem to explain a lot about why governments of the past sought the blessing of their nation's church for particular courses of action: maybe the church was seen as the bridge between the government (or monarchy) and the people. The whole article is worth a read.

posted at: 15:08 | path: / | permanent link to this entry