Saturday, 26 November 2011

Why NOT kill a President? The Book of Gove.

'And there was a mighty rush of unknown people...'
A Bible is, or will be on its way to every school. This, of course, has sent precisely half the chattering world into diabetic shock, and the other half into a righteous forced march. In 1858, the first transatlantic cable was sent from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan; it read; 'Glory to God, and peace to his people on Earth.' The cable had taken years to unwind across the uncertain plateaus and trenches of the Atlantic; every time it broke, they started again, usually from the beginning. Nowadays, people get upset when Bibles get sent to schools. I imagine if a new transatlantic message were to be composed today, it would be created by committee, and would be as exciting as a bowl of custard. Sic transit Gloria Mundi.

I'm an agnostic, and a militant one at that, not some woolly, uncertain gimp, but a soldier of agnosticism. My banner reads Uncertain in a polite but assertive way. I despair of fundamentalism on all points of the faith spectrum. I despair of the certainty that vilifies and demonises anyone who doesn't agree with the sacred truth of anybody, from Abu Hamza to Philip Pullman.

But, Bible -Bashers, why so serious? I've been thinking a lot about the roots of ethical systems lately, usually while accidental catching a flicker of TOWIE or 'I'm a celebrity' and wondering if these are the end times spoken of in the Revelation of John of Patmos. Where do we find value? Where does our idea of goodness come from? This kind of question genuinely disturbs my sleep; it's fundamental to the human condition. Why do we do what we do? What is the point of my, or your life? What is the point of education? Why do we teach? What are schools actually for?  Everything is linked.

'Blimey. Rule 34 ain't wrong, is it?'
All ethical systems have to be rooted in something (in philosophy, we could call this cognitivism, the offspring of moral realism) otherwise they are adrift. There has to be some kind of universal, undeniable value system to which we attach ourselves, otherwise we are making it up as we go along. If you're happy with the idea of moral relativism, that everyone gets to invent their own versions of right and wrong, then you're jolly welcome to it, but be aware that you commit yourself to neutrality and self-imposed silence on matters such as slavery, female circumcision, suttee, the death penalty etc etc, on the grounds that 'it's all relative, isn't it?' If you commit to realtivism, then  nothing is intrinsically right or wrong, and no one can stand in judgement of any other. 'Only God can judge me,' as the vile narcissist that is P-Diddy once said. Well, Mr Combs, not even him.

Possible anchors include: self-interest; virtue; duty. But an anchor is needed. The problem with rationalism and the ascent of reason as the rule and the tool of human ambition, is that it can never provide us with aims; only means. We cannot reason the nature of goodness; rather we believe in it, and then reason its execution- we reason the means to that ambition, not the ambition itself.

So when I read reports that Michael Gove wants to send every school in the UK a Bible, I recoil in desperation from the response of some who say, 'What a waste!' and 'Well, I hope The Descent of Man gets sent out too!'  Gove's actions may imply prescriptivism, but it isn't the prescriptivism that people are accusing him of. He isn't alluding to Biblical orthodoxy as some kind of state sanctioned Jesuit imperative that all schools should follow. Rather, it is the prescriptivism of the claim that the King James Bible is a core text in our civilisation and culture, and make of that what you may, but its position stands. The Bible doesn't need my shrill agnostic defence of cultural utilitarianism- I imagine it'll be just fine whatever I say. The Origin of the Species is a transformative scientific text; the Bible is not. Fair or foul, it is one of the lynchpins of our schema. Talk about it, spit on its face, weep on your knees before it, but don't ignore it.

Your argument is invalid.
What does need defending is the idea that there are some things that should be valued, and resistant to the claims of moral relativism. 'God is dead,' said Nietzsche, 'We killed him. Now anything is possible.' The syphilitic old rogue was implying that religion had been the anchor of morality for ages, and now that reason, the engine of the enlightenment, had blown out the votive candles, there was no need to be bound by the conventions of a society that only sought to enslave the strong. He was wrong about that- a secular age has birthed an enormous number of moral movements that have their roots in the human condition, Humanism being just one; the New Atheism being another. But what these movements all have in common is that they celebrate values, and hold them...I could almost say, hold them sacred.

Such movements aren't immune to the absolutist moral philosophy of their religious counterparts; they need them, otherwise anything is possible. The British Humanist Association, so resplendent in its secular representation, says that it...

'...is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. We promote Humanism, support and represent the non-religious, and promote a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.'
Which is gorgeous, and I march with you brother. But riddle me this- where did we get those values from? It certainly wasn't reason; reason can't provide us with a guarantee of justice or equality; reason can press a man to enslave another, on the grounds that his self-interest is served; reason can teach a child that dishonesty is often the best policy, if he wants to prosper in a community of the trusting.

No, reason alone cannot provide values; only a moral choice can do this; we choose, freely or otherwise, those things we hold to be dear. 'We can do as we please,' said Bertrand Russell, 'But we cannot please as we please.' That simple aphorism holds the key to the dilemma; our intellect cannot govern our desires; our desires govern out desires. The intellect rationalises those desires, breaks them down into taxonomies of possibility and expediency, and somewhere in the fathomless abyss of our consciousness, a decision is made. Whether that decision is its own first cause or not, or merely the end of a causal chain, no one- and I mean NO ONE- has any claim to certainty about it.

Another child lost to vice and mysticism
So don't mock Gove for sending out a copy of the KJB to every school; mock him for many other things, perhaps. But let's not forget that, whether you hold the Host to your bosom, or reject it like a vampire, schools- and people- have to confront issues of meaning and values in their own lives. Reason alone cannot produce a society of virtuous men, no matter what the Caliphs of Humanism say- it just can't. Reason is sterile to kindness, or justice, or bravery; these are attitudes, and have an emotional content. Intellect sparkles with many prizes, but feeling isn't one of them. Sending out a Bible to every school sends out a powerful and simple message: consider this; consider what you value. Let all schools proceed from that point. What DO they value? What do YOU value?

Then, apply your mighty brain to the tasks ahead of you, awake, and conscious and lucid. We have, possibly inevitably, entered- or inhabited- an age where reason has been in ascendency for some time. I celebrate this evolution from instinct and superstition. Now that we enjoy the fruits of the enlightenment, it's time to press ahead to the next step of that enlightenment, and cast aside the New Gods and False Prophets that claim all will be well with science and jolly good discussion. They will not. Science is a neutral deity; a medicine or a poison. Reason cannot furnish us with purpose. Purpose is an arrow attached to our hearts; method alone stems from our science.

In the Clint Eastwood's Western Swan-song masterpiece 'Unforgiven', English Bob, the hired assassin is mouthing off in a carriage full of shocked Americans about the relative impossibility of Regicide:

English Bob: [discussing the assassination of President Garfield] Well there's a dignity to royalty. A majesty that precludes the likelihood of assassination. If you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen your hands would shake as though palsied.
Barber: Oh I wouldn't point no pistol at nobody sir.
English Bob: Well that's a wise policy,  wise policy. But if you did. I can assure you, if you did, the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed and you would stand... how shall I put it? In awe. Now, a president... well I mean...
[chuckles]

'Why not shoot a president?'
Gove, yesterday, with a book. The BASTARD.
Why not indeed? In his oafish way, Bob makes a point. If you want meaning to emerge from rationalisation, then grab a chair, you'll be there for a while.

The problem is, of course, a political one; all politics can be broken down to a conflict of values, or the means of achieving those values. Once values are exposed, once the flesh of evidence and debate are stripped from their bones, then we can see politics for what it is: a competition of values. Sunlight bleaching those bones is the best cure I know for argumentation; once facts are established, honesty is possible. Would that we were so honest more often.

Why a Bible? Why NOT a Bible? Let people cast their anchors where they will, and hope that we can rub along together without destroying each other.

12 comments:

  1. What a balanced, lucid analysis of what so many less objective minds would dismiss as "fundamentalism" or "reactionary." I suspect (a bit like Gove) I've never had a problem with the question what are schools for? We are where we are, after several thousand years of sweat, blood and tears and every child should have the benefit of knowing something of the best of human thought, activity and effort that has got us here. And it's impossible to do that outside of some kind of cultural or linguistic framework.

    Your post reminded me of a nice quotation from Jostein Gaarder's "Sophie's World," a book I used to teach year 9 kids very successfully.
    "Where both reason and experience fall short, there occurs a vacuum that can be filled by faith." I find as I get older: experience and reason increasingly let me down!

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  2. *Bows down* Your writing at its best. A masterful commentary on the source of the values that make our society what it is. I'm a Christian but one who has been exposed to every major faith, and who has worked with members of all of them. My work continues...

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  3. Philosophical musings aside, the simple fact is that this will cost money. Even should some rich theist cough up, I'd rather have a copy of "The C Programming Language (2nd Ed)" please. This would be much more useful to my pupils as we already have one or two copies of the Bible (sans Govean foreword, natch) knocking about but cannot afford the seminal K&R reference.

    Then again, the Beano would be good too. Why NOT the Beano Annual 2006? Lots of morality tales in there and just as arbitrary.

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  4. I don't agree on this one. Reason is the best way to discover the virtuous life - 'what is the good?' - as per Socrates so many years ago. Today scientists are finding that morals are biologically based, not just in humans but in many of our closest animal relations. Relying on 'faith' lets in the ayatollahs or imams with their rather different ideas on justice or ethics.
    But more than this, why a christian bible? Shouldn't a government be religiously neutral? Secular in fact?! I would not be happy if I were muslim or jewish. And if I were hindu or buddhist or humanist I would merely think 'what a blasted waste of money'.

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  5. Inclined to agree with Dave - haven't Gideon's got this one covered as much as is useful? And in what circumstances are students likely to request the school copy of the Bible? How many schools have a Bhagavad Gita and Koran knocking around in their libraries? It just seems a bit fruitless as an exercise.

    Fantastic writing though; I especially enjoyed the 'No, reason alone...' paragraph - very eloquently put!

    FWIW, I reckon most of our values stem from the biological imperative of evolution giving us a healthy instinct for self-preservation and preservation of those that might help you out. If you think of society as a large mob of potential adversaries and consider whether to accept what is a pretty good deal (given that they basically have you by the short n curlies if you kick up too much of a fuss) then compliance as far as is necessary to keep your nose clean is a good option. And when obeying an externally set rule, I'm pretty convinced there's some instinct to want other people to kowtow those rules too. Thoughts?

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  6. @ Dave

    I'm not a Christian, but I'd be hard pressed to deny that the Bible, among other works of similar stature is an enormous edifice of a cultural text, straddling centuries of collective human understanding about meaning, value and morality. Some of it is hokey, and some is not. The C Programming Guide...er, isn't. I'm sure it's jolly good though.

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  7. @ Anonymous

    Plato thought he could establish the good cognitively, as did Plato, but couldn't- reason cannot supervene or correspond to value. It's no more reasonable to be a successful drug dealer than it is to be an average shelf-stacker. Kindness or cruelty can't be inferred from anything factual.

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  8. @ Jon, cheers for the comments. Richard Dawkins did a pretty good job of finding shared communal values in a gene/ meme context (I think it was the Selfish Gene) but unfortunately accounts like that rather reduce our moral exchanges to determinism, and I'm rather fond of the concept of freewill.

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  9. I agree Tom - but we've got LOADS of Bibles in our school. We're beating them off like a plague of bloody locusts. Sometimes weird folk even turn up and GIVE them away to the whole year group. Now that's something I'd like to see with textbooks. EdExcel - you listening? You could slip a copy of "GCSE ICT" into my hotel drawer anytime. And that's not a euphemism baby.

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  10. Clearly, I'm a few weeks behind ;0) We moved. We settled...sort of...there are still a few boxes. As you probably know, I am a Christian. I've kept shtoom in the staffroom on this topic but I do wonder at times, that those in education can be so ignorant of the part the church played in the establishment of education. Anyway, I love your take on this. I love your honesty. And eh...God bless you :0)

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    1. Where HAVE you been? Nice to hear from you again. I don't care what faith background people come from; it seems wilfully ignorant to get so upset about sending one of History's greatest moral texts to every school as a symbolic gesture. Perhaps it was a clumsy gesture, and perhaps the funding could have been worked out in advance of the obvious criticisms. But the protests would have been very different had the book been the collected works of Shakespeare. And there is not, despite the wishes of some secularists, a separation between church and state in England. That's what they should address, not the symptoms of it. Basically, chill out, is what I'm saying. It's not a big deal.

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