A website promoting a short film by Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-immigration politician, has been taken offline by the Internet services company hosting it. This was not a judgment on the quality, morality or intellectual worth of the film: it was an act of fear.
A measure of mankind’s progress is not simply how long we’ve been on this planet, but how far we have come intellectually in that time. The advance of science offers us one scale by which to judge ourselves.
Most smart people have already given up on the BC and AD calendar designations. Before Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE) are considered less religiously chauvinist. However, as useful as they are for simple dates, they give no idea of the quality of a culture or society – of its progress towards reason or its grasp of knowledge.
The advent of true science, however, is a valuable watershed for determining when a culture emerged from the darkness of superstition, when it fully embraced the intellectual potential of our species. Dating a culture by reference to the number of years before and after its adoption of scientific rigour allows us to have an intuitive grasp of its maturity.
After all, think about how we often express our feelings about a particular time and place. “Oh, back then people still believed in [insert irrational nonsense of your choice]” or “yeah, but they thought [some risible superstition here]“.
This is not one scale applicable equally everywhere. The point where one era switches to the other varies not just from place to place, but from group to group within a society. After all, some people still believe in silly ideas like sin, heaven and talking snakes. In fact, there will be no clear change – in many places the two scales will run side by side, with the pre-science part diminishing as scientific thought gains ground.
Nevertheless, all that is truly valuable to us in terms of knowledge can be found on the plus side of the graph marked After Science, or AS (as a mnemonic, think “AS it really is”). Everything else, of course, is BS.
A UK professional photographers’ group has hit back at the Metropolitan Police’s fear-mongering campaign against photographers. But at least the ‘togs have a sense of humour.
In classic Orwellian fashion, the Met’s ad campaign (which I wrote about in Pump up the paranoia) incites the general public to watch itself. It promotes suspicion and fear. Its headline, “Thousands of people take photographs every day. What if one of them seems odd?” seems calculated to appeal to that fraction of society that likes to appoint itself the guardian and judge of the rest.
It continues: “Terrorists use surveillance to help plan attacks, taking photographs and making notes about security measures like the location of CCTV cameras. If you see someone doing that, we need to know. Let experienced officers decide what action to take.” And it ends: “Terrorism. If you suspect it, report it.” The likely result of the paranoia this kind of campaign generates is the suppression of the press. News photographers already have a hard time doing their job without every gullible nerk thinking there’s an RPG inside that long lens.
But photographers and terrorists are not the only groups capable of dubious behaviour.
[photopress:EPUK_poster.jpg,full,alignright]The Editorial Photographers UK (EPUK) group maintains a website with information and news for photographers as well as a private mailing list. It’s an invaluable resource for documentary and reportage shooters, providing advice, guidance and support, often in a more timely and effective way than any formal industry body.
Now. in association with the National Union of Journalists and the British Press Photographers Association, it has responded to the Met’s shameful behaviour. Its own poster design (available on t-shirts and mugs here) mimics the Police’s posters, but with rather more wit.
“Thousands of coppers stop photographers every day,” it says, with forgiveable hyperbole, “What if one of them seems odd?”
Then, with a reference to the Police’s frequent abuse of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, it says: “Police twist the laws to help prevent protest, stopping people and threatening arrest under vague all encompassing terrorism laws. If you see a copper behaving oppressively we need to know. Let experienced journalists decide what action to take.”
STATE CONTROL. IF YOU SUSPECT IT, REPORT IT.
It seems that Turkey doesn’t quite grasp the concept of free speech. It has again blocked access to YouTube for content it deems insulting to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country’s founder.
The announcement by a Vatican official of ‘new’ mortal sins is further proof of religion’s man-made origins. It also shows that, whenever the Roman Catholic church tries to be hip, it reveals itself as painfully out-of-date.
Speaking in an interview with the Vatican daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti listed among the new breed of deadly sin a number of modern ills including illicit drugs, pollution, genetic manipulation and social injustices that make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
And he should know. Girotti heads the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican department that concerns itself with sin, conscience and redemption.
Mortal sins are the type that send you straight to hell unless you obtain the most stringent form of absolution, which requires profound levels of penitence. Traditionally, there were seven, familiar to any fan of the Brad Pitt movie of the same name. But self-indulgences like gluttony, lust, sloth, greed, wrath, envy and pride were all personal matters. This original litany of bad behaviour was clearly an attempt to control personal attitudes and activities – partly so that the church could exert its control. Forcing people to conform to unnaturally strict rules is a fundamental mechanism of totalitarianism. It makes people fearful of transgressing: at the same time, it virtually ensures that they do transgress at some time, in some way, thus cranking up the fear and providing the regime with a means to punish, demonstrating its power and superiority.
In addition, these rules had a beneficial effect, that of controlling behaviour perceived as anti-social that might otherwise threaten social cohesion and stability – arguably a key role for religion before secular laws took over that function. Of course, given that most religions are still mired in the concepts and outlook of the Middle Ages (at best) it is a sheer anachronism for the church to attempt to fulfill this function today.
Clearly, the Roman Catholic church is feeling somewhat sidelined in the world. The number of its adherents is falling. It no longer has the political clout it once enjoyed. The majority of the world’s population regards it as either irrelevant or comically archaic. Something needs to be done.
Concerns about social inequality, pollution, the environment, genetic modification are part of today’s zeitgeist. The Roman Catholic church has thus far shown itself inadequate in dealing with these issues. So this is the response – a new breed of social or corporate sins, shared by many.
It is a sad sight. There were times, in past centuries, when the church led in matters of moral issues. Now we see it pedalling furiously to catch up with the rest of the world.
Quite what burden each of us carries for, say, air pollution, isn’t clear. Given that these are mortal sins, presumably we should all be desperately worried. Personally, I think I can cope. I am already concerned with many of these issues and try to do what I can – not because of the threat of eternal torment in some supernatural world, but because it is self-evidently the right thing to do. I don’t need some self-appointed moralist in a frock to wave a big stick at me.
And there’s another problem here. How come the Vatican has only just noticed?
Pollution isn’t new. Some of the worst pollution the planet has ever seen occurred back in the Industrial Revolution.
Social injustice and the gap between rich and poor is hardly an innovation either. And there were times when the Vatican was firmly on the side of kings. In fact, it has never appeared particularly averse to building up considerable wealth itself. So there’s a deep hypocrisy at work here.
Even genetic manipulation is as old as farming itself. For centuries, farmers and horticulturalists have used selective breeding to create new or more robust species of plants and animals. And much important early work in genetics was carried out by the Moravian monk Gregor Mendel, who published his results in 1865.
One has to assume that god, being omniscient, knew that these things were sins all along, even if the Vatican has come to the realisation somewhat late (indeed, after pretty much the entire rest of the world). Presumably, the industrialists, farmers, rose breeders, kings, popes and at least one Moravian monk are now burning in hell while bemoaning, “We didn’t know it was a sin!”
This attempt to update its image and get on board with issues that have been concerning the rest of us for some time simply highlights two rather pathetic characteristics of the Roman Catholic church (though ones it shares with many other religions).
First, it is desperately and unfailingly behind the times. It is a dinosaur, but one deserving of extinction. Its effort to grasp the nettle of contemporary issues is hilariously anachronistic because it can do so only by framing them in concepts that belong to the fourth century.
Second, by delineating ‘new’ sins, the Roman Catholic church demonstrates that religion is a man-made construct. We’ve seen this before with limbo and other bizarre fantasies of the faith. And the more nonsense they make up, the more the rest of us will feel justified in ignoring the church and getting on with our real lives.
The following are alleged to be actual excerpts from church bulletins. I suspect that many, if not all, of them belong in the apocrypha, but that doesn’t make them any the less funny.
Scientific materialism is often condemned by religious believers as being reductionist, as though perceiving the essential truth of something were a bad thing. But does it justify this pejorative abuse of the term?
What do people of a scientific inclination see when they look at the world? They see the complex bonding of elements. They see the intricate play of physical forces. They see the comprehensible strangeness of the quantum realm, the staggering immensity of the universe, the eternal truth of natural laws, the sublime irrationality of pi.
Our accumulated scientific wisdom is vast – so huge, in fact, that no-one today can simply be a ‘scientist’, not even just a physicist, chemist, biologist. To have any chance of fully comprehending and utilising any branch of science means specialising.
But this enormous treasury of knowledge is not enough for scientists. They want more. Every true scientist is driven by what he or she does not know. The existence of science as a discipline is an acknowledgment of our ignorance, but also our desire to leave that condition. It is an assertion that ignorance is undesirable, a form of failure, a primitive state that we, as evolved life forms, should leave behind. All true knowledge is valuable, even if we can’t put it to use immediately. Talking about the curiosity that motivates mathematicians, E C Titchmarsh said:
It can be of no practical use to know that pi is irrational, but if we can know, it surely would be intolerable not to know.
Scientists are explorers, constantly expanding our horizons. So how can a discipline that is almost incomprehensibly vast and complex, and to which we are adding every day, be reductionist? Such an accusation is oxymoronic at best. In fact, you can probably drop the ‘oxy’.
What does the believer comprehend while gazing on the magnificence of nature, with all its complexity?
God did it.
This, surely, is the ultimate in reductionist thinking. As an explanation for the world and all it contains, it is disappointingly banal, feeble, simple-minded, crude, unimaginative. Frankly, it’s a bit silly.
The faithful complain when rationalists ‘explain away’ the mysteries of the spiritual realm – when they provide logical, supportable, real-world mechanisms by which apparent visions or miracles come about. But these explanations are made possible by that accumulated wisdom, acquired painstakingly by innumerable explorers after truth, collected and refined over centuries. Even the simplest assertion in science is built on a sophisticated foundation of knowledge that was hard won and required vast effort.
In this sense, no rational explanation of a supernatural phenomenon is ever ‘simple’, however easy our fund of knowledge has made it. Flying from Paris to New York is simple. All you do is sit on a plane for several hours. What could be easier? But start thinking about the effort and knowledge required to build a flying machine, jet engines, the seat-back video, and you will understand that there is nothing simple about it.
On the other hand, the believer would ‘explain away’ the miraculous (and even those things that scientists already understand) with nothing more than “it’s god’s will” or worse, “we can never understand this. It’s not for us to know”.
The so-called ‘mystery’ of religion is nothing more than glorified ignorance. Can anyone explain the benefit of not knowing something?
If you enjoy the experience of standing in awe and wonder at the magnificence of the universe, try learning some science. There is nothing so splendid as the complex truth of nature.