Does ‘belief’ matter? A Coda

What is the relationship between belief and rule-keeping? Which matters more in religion? These comments follow from a previous post on this matter.

The Guardian’s Face to Faith column has an interesting comment by Geoffrey Alderman on the life of Benzion Dunner, a prominent member of London’s Orthodox Jewish community, who died earlier this year.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks said: “Benzion Dunner was an outstanding exemplar of Jewish values and Jewish responsibility. He was a person of exceptional chesed, much of whose work was done quietly behind the scenes and was all the more impressive for that. Our hearts go out to the members of his family, whose grief we share. His memory will endure as a source of blessing and inspiration.”

According to the Guardian article (and that’s my main source), while Dunner was very wealthy and very charitable, he was also a user of cocaine and may have died under the influence.

The question is how the community of which he was a part should respond to this. Alderman seems to think it’s sad “that practically no one among the sectarian-orthodox is prepared to condemn his behaviour”.

The issue seems to be how someone who doesn’t keep the rules is to be regarded. Is condemnation appropriate?

It seems there is more to it than merely belief or obedience. There is also belonging. This matters enormously. And in the case of Benzion Dunner, his standing in his community, not his rule-keeping, is what he is being remembered for. And this standing comes from exemplary chesed, not from perfection.

No one can be good at everything; all of us have our weak points. In this case, it seems, fatal drug-taking.

But belonging, as much as believing or obeying, may be the mark of a good, if flawed, life.

Magic needs rules

Magic requires rules. Here is what anthropologist Marcel Mauss has to say:

‘Far from being the simple expression of individual emotions, magic takes every opportunity to coerce actions and locutions. Everything is fixed and becomes precisely determined. Rules and patterns are imposed. Magical formulas are muttered or sung on one note to special rhythms …Gestures are regulated with an equally fine precision. The magician does everything in a rhythmical fashion as in dancing: and ritual rules tell him which hand or finger he should use, which foot he should step forward with. When he sits, stands up, lies down, jumps, shouts, walks in any direction, it is because it is all prescribed. Even when he is alone he is not freer than the priest at his altar… Moreover, words are pronounced or actions are performed facing a certain direction, the most common rule being that the magician should face the direction of the person at whom the rite is aimed.’

Marcel Mauss, General Theory of Magic [1950] tr. Robert Brain, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972, p.58. Quoted in Ian Hunt 2002, ‘Escape Routine’ accessed at

Calling all Unthinking Anglicans!

The Thinking Anglicans website,, is worth a look. Curiously I have been unable to locate its sister website, and wonder if there might be any takers out there. While the dnsserver claims: ‘the domain name does not exist’, I am tempted to ask whether this statement is epistemologically defensible.

How important is ‘belief’? Three questions and a tentative answer

A while back Rabbi Jonathan Romain wrote thoughtfully on some Jewish approaches to the existence or non-existence of God.

The heading of this article is ‘Jews don’t have to believe – if they do what he says’. And clearly this needs a little unpacking.

It may make a certain sort of sense to ‘do what he says’ if you believe in the kind of God who expects obedience. But what if you don’t? If there is no ‘he’ what is the justification for keeping his law? Three questions arise in particular.

First, It’s fairly obvious that if you insist on obeying the commandments of a deity whose existence you deny, and have no considered reasons for doing so, you are in an untenable position in the long-term. So could there be good and sustainable reasons for this behaviour?

Second, there is an aporia in Romain’s piece – a question going begging. At the start he writes as though a decline in synagogue attendance is some kind of problem to be lamented and he identifies Jewish atheism or agnosticism as the culprit.

‘No wonder they do not come back to pray to a God they reckon is absent.’

But by the end, he seems to be excusing the non-attenders on the grounds that Judaism isn’t consensually about belief in any case. The lingering question, then, is whether it matters that synagogues are reportedly emptying. And if it does, would a return to dogmatic belief be any kind of solution, or just promote further alienation?

Third (or eighth and ninth if you’re actually counting), the tradition itself does seem to have an ongoing debate about the significance of attitudes to rules, which Romain seems to skip over rather lightly. This was why the Christian Reformers critiqued what they saw as the ‘legalism’ of the Roman Catholic Church. As they read the Bible for themselves, especially the Prophets, they became exposed to a strand of religious thought that prioritised disposition over practice, epitomised by the rather ungainly but significant metaphor of the law written in the heart. This debate continues into the present. Is it enough merely to keep the letter of the law? Don’t you also need at least a little respect for its spirit?

One partial resolution of these questions might be to see religious observance as a kind of game to be played.

Like any game it’s more fun if you have a set of rules, and almost impossible to continue if you don’t. It’s interesting that almost no one claims a supernatural being invented the rules of games, and yet game-playing is massively and enduringly popular. Conversely, the experience of being coerced into playing a rule-based game, as in a million school sports lessons in the rain, is usually very negative; it’s only when we freely consent to the rules, without authoritarianism, that the game becomes enjoyable. As anyone who has played games will tell you, the rules look fixed but really they’re contestable, and the evolving debate about the rules is a significant part of what makes the game socially worthwhile. Finally, and perhaps more than anything else, it’s a social thing: if you won’t play along, you’re missing out on all the fun.

Perhaps if synagogues and churches were more like that – more ludic in their disposition – they’d have more punters.

In case it is supposed that the analogy between religious practice and a game is frivolous, it should be remembered that games, as well as religious practice, can be very serious things.

The forthcoming TV drama God on Trial gives an example of a seriously playful approach to the problem of evil.

Objectors might argue that a really significant difference between a religion and a game has been overlooked: the difference being the divinity itself. After all, who ever heard of people getting together to behave as though fictional beings really existed? Actually, this is the main premise of fantasy role-playing games. These have taken the Internet and what used to be called ‘the younger generation’ by storm and may well point towards a viable future for religious practice. A concern would be that these ‘massively multiplayer games’ seem to encourage, to put it mildly, a certain lack of ethical seriousness. But hasn’t this always been the dilemma of religionists in an ethically frivolous world? And in any case, with a few notable exceptions this concern probably mistakes form for substance. Beneath the pixie dust and hidden deep in the alien bases lies a far-reaching ongoing experiment in character formation (a phrase the fans of Ignatius Loyola and Gary Gygax would be equally comfortable with). Far from denigrating ethics, games and their rules can actually establish an environment in which ethical behaviour is modelled, learned, and even mastered. In realising this aspiration the games known as religions can and should play an important part.

Ironies of the Netbook

The book is a relative newcomer in western society. It began its career in the mid-15th century and its future is no longer certain, threatened as it is by new inventions based on different principles.’

These words come from Lucien Fevre’s preface to The Coming of the Book, published in French in 1958.  I’m reading them sixty years later, sitting on a train using a portable computer, with the aid of a repository of electronically scanned volumes, which makes instantly available an unreadable number of published works, not to mention millions of pages of ‘unpublished’ electronic texts.

The irony of this situation is remarkable.

The book endures

The laptop is approx A4 size, the netbook is the size of a paperback.

The first irony is that the computer I am using is called a notebook. That is, conceptually the new invention is not ‘based on different principles’ but explicitly pays homage to the old, even as it radically undermines it. Now that the netbook craze is upon us, we are doing the same thing. The striking thing about the new cut-down mini-notebooks such as the Asus eee PC and now the Dell Inspiron 910 is that they are trying very hard indeed to be the same size and weight as a paperback book (remember that the paperback was the new reading technology of the 1930s). And we seem to be desperate to keep calling them books. As with the last major shift – from scroll to codex – it seems that while the technology may change, the name remains the same. If we call it a book, even though a netbook, does it remain one?

The scribes endure too

The scribal tradition has been reinvented with reCaptcha

The second irony is that mindful of legal considerations the electronic repository in question – Google Books – has artificially hobbled a piece of already existing technology that would effortlessly allow copying of the text. The result is that when I want to reproduce a quotation, as above, I need to copy it out by retyping it manually, letter for letter, word for word, in a manner strongly reminiscent of the working practices of the monastic scribes who dominated the book industry before the coming of the printing press, let alone the coming of the computer. Now, through the use of the reCAPTCHA security process, this activity of scribal rewriting has been massively distributed, so that every time someone spends ten seconds verifying they are human, they contribute to digitally transcribing the equivalent of one hundred and fifty printed books per day. (according to Luis Von Ahn of Carnegie-Mellon University).

Appearing to arrive

Third, it’s easy to overlook the ambiguity of the original French title. Translated as the ‘coming’ of the book, the original French word is ‘l’apparition’, which can equally be translated ‘appearance’ and which has a double meaning in both languages. Does the e-book you hold on your lap actually amount to a real book which has almost magically ‘arrived’ inside your computer, or does it only have the ‘appearance’ of a book?

So who’s imagining whom?

Is the netbook a book just because we say it’s a book? Perhaps, conversely, there is something so compelling about the concept of a book in our culture that it simply refuses to lie down and die, transmuting instead into something very different, but eerily the same. As James Wood says,

‘a good proportion of reality consists of what we freely imagine; and then, less happily perhaps, we discover that that reality has imagined us—that we are the vassals of our imaginings, not their emperors or archdukes.’


Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: 1450-1800. Trans. David Gerard. London: Verso, 1984)

James Wood, ‘The Unforgotten. Aleksandar Hemon’s fictional lives’. The New Yorker 28 July 2008 Accessed at

Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (at least in Swedish schools)

The Gaol Chapel at Lincoln Castle
The Gaol Chapel at Lincoln Castle

According to the Guardian newspaper Sweden is going to ban the teaching of religious doctrine ‘as though it were true’. It may well be a move to try to crack down on Islamic schools, about which Swedes seem either worried or paranoid, depending on your viewpoint.

Could they not try teaching the critical skills necessary to judge for oneself whether something is likely to be true?

Religious schools don’t indoctrinate children by giving them a diet of facts, true or untrue. They do it by creating a community of faith and learning to which students become emotionally attached. In a sense, then, it doesn’t matter what is taught overtly, the mere existence of a network of relationships is enough for a religious school to impact strongly on its students and their families.

One way of making this relational influence difficult was tried in the Nineteenth Century in Lincoln Castle Gaol in England. The chapel was designed so each prisoner would be able to see the preacher, but be completely unaware of the existence of their neighbouring prisoners. That way they would have the good influence of religion without the negative influence of other criminals.

Would we be better off without religion?

I’m planning to attend a public debate on religion, organised by Intelligence Squared. The motion is ‘We’d be better off without religion’, and the speakers include Victor Stenger, who wrote God, the Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows that God does not Exist. I checked this out recently.

The blurb about Professor Stenger says:

Stenger maintains that plausible natural explanations exist for for all observable phenomena and there is strong scientific evidence against anything mystical or supernatural in the universe.

The book claims:

Not only does the universe show no evidence for God, it looks exactly as it would be expected to look if there is no God.

I would frame this slightly differently and suggest that the evidence in favour of the existence of God is exactly the same as the evidence against the existence of God. It may seem like a small difference but I think it’s important. Here’s why. Continue reading “Would we be better off without religion?”

Here Comes the Sun King

I’m interested right now in Jaime Laura’s latest book, Christian Texts for Aztecs. This is the second of two works exploring the ways in which Christian missionaries in the Americas adapted their message for an Aztec audience, and were themselves in turn somewhat adapted by that environment. An image that is particularly striking is that of the ‘sunburst’ monstrance, an artefact with which anyone who has attended much Catholic worship will be familiar.

Before the Christian encounter with Aztec culture
Before the Christian encounter with Aztec culture (Source)
After the encounter with the New World
After the encounter with the New World (Source)

The gold came from Mexico, but did the design too? The question is, to what extent was the design of such artefacts influenced by existing depictions of Aztec deities surrounded by a sunburst motif? And to what extent does the solar design represent an innovation, accentuating a theme – Christ as “Sun of righteousness” – that was already present in Christian theology, but rendered more prominent by implicit comparison with Aztec sun gods?

Did this kind of Aztec design influence the missionaries? (Source)
Did this kind of Aztec design influence the missionaries? (Source)

Peak Oil talk: has it peaked?

According to Nielsen’s trend monitor, BlogPulse, weblog mentions of ‘Peak Oil’ themselves peaked on June 27 2008.

In spite of such compelling evidence, sceptics argue that supplies of Peak Oil opinion are actually unlimited and will never run out. Others are more cautious and warn that not talking about it won’t make the issue go away. They also warn that if demand for Peak Oil talk did ever outstrip supply, the blog would be a very different place from the blog we have always known.

Though the trend seems clear, it’s too early to tell yet whether this really is a peak, or whether we’re seeing instead early indications of a less radical ‘undulating plateau’.

Experts note that this pattern is fully compatible with the well-known ‘Hubbert curve’ hypothesis of resource extraction, and that M. King Hubbert himself would have predicted the present shortfall in Peak Oil blogging- if only he had remembered to predict the invention of the blog itself.

To avert an impending Peak Oil blog crisis, many American bloggers are considering asking their OPEC counterparts to increase production of views about Peak Oil, although there is widespread concern that this may still be too little, to late. It has even been suggested that opinion-producers could dilute their blogs using so-called ‘advanced recovery technology’. In this way, Peak Oil talk could be sustained well beyond current expectations.

The opinion of this author is that even though we may indeed have exhausted half of all the words about Peak Oil that will ever be written, we won’t run out completely for at least another, oh, let’s say thirty years.

Furthermore, absolute shortages of Peak Oil talk are highly unlikely and in any case can be avoided by means of substitutes such as unconventional Peak Oil talk. We may not know what this is yet, but that certainly won’t stop us from talking about it.

And if all else fails we can always talk about peaks in many other commodities – a trend already clearly identifiable among key opinion-formers.

One thing is certain: the current lull in Peak Oil talk has nothing whatever to teach us about our amazingly short-term view of energy resources, which stops us thinking any further than this week’s prices at the pump, and which encourages us to believe that as soon as oil prices drop slightly we can all go back to talking about Paris Hilton.

So relax Peak Oil pundits, as ever there’s nothing to worry about. Just remember you read it here first.

What we argue about when we argue about global warming

British Journalist George Monbiot has been writing a number of pieces about a TV ‘documentary’ which supposedly tried to debunk climate change by doctoring statistics and misrepresenting interviewees. Certainly it was one of the most mendacious things I’ve seen on TV, right up there with ads for shampoo that cures dandruff. Monbiot seems to think this kind of thing plays well because, as he puts it,

“We want to be misled, we crave it; and we will bend our minds into whatever shape they need to take in order not to face our brutal truths”.

I think he’s completely wrong on this. We are not self-deceiving in this way, and we are not living in ‘the age of stupid‘ as a film with a similar theory put it (although I look forward to seeing the movie). Well, not with global warming, anyway. Dandruff may be another matter. I’ll explain.

Filming a house wrecked by the New Orleans Hurricane
'The Age of Stupid' director Franny Armstrong films a house wrecked by hurricane in New Orleans

Continue reading “What we argue about when we argue about global warming”