"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Religion in America

I'm not sure the rather sensationalist headline attached to this Scotsman piece from which I traced this fascinating survey of religion in the United States has it quite right. Religion in America is not declining to anything like European levels and the report argues that one of the factors in its relative strength is the buoyant marketplace of faiths that the United States has to offer.

The 'unaffiliated' are indeed the fastest growing group. However, these constitute only around 16% of the population.

That the relative strength of religion in the US is down to religious groups competing and adapting to their 'market' would seem to be confirmed by the fact that it is the traditional denominations that are disproportionately represented in the net losers: Baptists, Methodists but above all Catholics are failing to attract more converts than they are losing to changes in religious affiliation and death. Non-denominational protestants, on the other hand, have tripled in number.

I have to say for someone who has an interest in this sort of thing and doesn't buy into the stereotypes routinely peddled about Bible-thumping Americans, there wasn't a huge amount in this report that was particularly surprising. A couple of things did stand out though.

The representatives of evangelicals, at least, are often heard to mutter darkly - actually shout rather loudly - about the decline of the American family. The evidence here would suggest they might want to put their own house in order first because evangelical protestants are slightly more inclined to get divorced(pdf) than the national average.

The other thing that surprised me slightly was that they don't seem significantly more keen on breeding(pdf). On this they are exactly in line with the national average and the 'unaffiliated' are only marginally less inclined to do so.

This suggests to me that the evidence that the religious worldwide are more likely to breed than the non-religious has to do with economics. In poor countries people breed more for a variety of reasons, which would include compensating for the risk inherent in higher rates of infant mortality, lack of access to contraception, lack of opportunities for women, an insurance policy against old age and so on. In the absence of these conditions, in the case of the United States anyway, religious faith per se doesn't seem to have much to do with it.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The road to meritocracy

Is blocked by private schools, according to David Kynaston. Here's a summary of his argument: 'Old Labour' went for 'equality of outcome' but Britain's relative economic decline meant this goal had to be abandoned in favour of meritocracy. Trouble is, social mobility has actually fallen - and part of the reason has been the 'elephant in the living room' of the private school system:
"Obviously there are many obstacles to social mobility. Yet as Alan Bennett bluntly reminded us last month, standing in the corner of this particular room is a huge elephant - huge symbolically as well as substantively - that for the past decade New Labour has stoutly pretended is not there. He was referring of course to the P Factor: private schools."
It's not my purpose to defend private education but to say that I think this article is wrong on nearly every point and for really one reason: the 'elephant on the living room' is not private schools but inequality itself. I'd break down the objections to Kynaston's argument in the following way:

1) He provides no argument nor evidence for the proposition that the pursuit of 'equality of outcome' was responsible for relative economic decline. You could argue that the statist way in which it was pursued retarded Britain's economic growth but it shows a distinct lack of imagination to assume that a greater equality of outcome is therefore not possible nor even worth pursuing.

2) I consider 'meritocracy' undesirable anyway but I get a little fed up of the way in which this and equality of outcome are treated as if they are mutually exclusive. Isn't one of the reasons that social mobility has fallen simply because to make the journey out of poverty requires one to travel much further than in the past? Or is this too obvious to merit consideration?

3) You do get a species of middle-class lefties who think by sending their offspring to dwell amongst us scum in the comprehensive system they're doing everyone a big favour. I've always thought this was a rather generous self-assessment on their part but at least, according to some recent research, they aren't doing their children any great dis-service. I wish people would pay attention to the now considerable stack of evidence that indicates at least that education isn't important for social mobility as everyone - specifically journalists - seems to assume. Because then maybe the crazy idea that schools are really just places where you learn stuff might catch on. That would be refreshing. And a lot less stressful for everyone involved.

Prejudice and the death penalty (redux)

In response to this post below, Norm writes:
"I wonder if he doesn't give up too quickly on looking for a reasoned basis for being opposed to the death penalty. For example, couldn't he argue that the death penalty brings with it a virtual certainty of mistakes and therefore the killing of innocent people; and that the deliberate killing of innocent people is nearly always wrong even if it can be shown to have good (utilitarian) consequences?"
Yes, he's right. I could - and I actually do. If pressed for a reason why I oppose the death penalty, the certainty of making mistakes is the one I usually give; I'd forgotten to mention this is the post. I wonder about my own consistency here, though. While someone executed by mistake is an innocent who has been deliberately killed, when we talk about deliberately killing the innocent, we usually mean they have been killed with the knowledge that they are innocent. Without this, it's a much weaker reason. You could say that war brings with it the certainty of 'deliberately killing the innocent' in Norm's sense too - so if this reason is to rule out the use of the death penalty, it should also rule out war, surely? But neither Norm nor myself are pacifists.

The other point that occurred to me has to do with the general idea of values and prejudices. I'd agree that we shouldn't give up on finding reasons for the positions we take. I should've qualified what I said by adding that I think a lot of the positions we take are sort of post de facto rationalizations of prejudices we already have. This means that they aren't pure prejudices - and we could say that the positions we change in the face of evidence are relatively free from prejudice? - but I still think that prejudice forms a large part of the positions we take, even though we insist they are rational. I wouldn't say I'm comfortable with this, really. I don't know quite what to make of it - but I do think it's true.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

People losing their damn minds #23

Lemme explain how teaching works: educational professionals profess their enthusiasm for "the kids" largely in inverse proportion to their actual experience of being with thirty of them in an enclosed space for most of the day. So, for example, senior management are generally much more favourably disposed towards "our young people" than real teachers but can still on occasion get pissed off with them because despite their best efforts, they can't avoid bumping into the odd one from time to time. Even more enthusiastic are lecturers in teacher training colleges who love the kids so much they fucked off into what is laughingly called academia at the first available opportunity. But even these never-have-beens can't match the people who actually run the show for sheer divorced-from-reality lunacy, as can be witnessed here:
"Teachers should not be afraid of saying they "love" the children they work with, according to two of Scotland’s most influential figures in young people’s lives.

Margaret Doran, Glasgow City Council’s head of education and social work, and Kathleen Marshall, the Commissioner for Children and Young People, argued that love was an important factor in working successfully with children."
Ah, but where to begin?
Schools that were genuinely inclusive, Ms Doran said, were "the ones that absolutely love the kids; it’s an unconditional love, and it’s special".
Ah, but where to begin?
"Mrs Marshall spoke about a colleague who believed that professionals’ discomfort about articulating love for children in their care stemmed from a "poverty of the English language. Love is a very challenging word.""
So is "restraining order". Ok, so that's two words. You might have thought the 'discomfort' was provoked by the unbridled lunacy on display here? No - it's a linguistic phenomenon, apparently. The audience was not universally receptive, it seems:
"They made their comments at a leadership event for primary school heads last week, creating a talking point that dominated the coffee breaks and split delegates into two clear camps."
These "two clear camps" are the ones into which teachers are habitually divided: 1) the relatively sane 2) the frankly a bit mental. The former group had some misgivings...
"Some were uncomfortable with talking about love for pupils, believing it could be misinterpreted."
"Could be" being something of an understatement here. I trust that Ms Doran et al haven't yet traveled so far to the outer-reaches of insanity that they think this love-fest would be appropriate in a secondary school? I mean, if you said to a male pupil, "I love you, man", this might be misconstrued, to say no more than that. If, on the other hand, you were to declare your 'special love' to female pupils who looked like this...

...I think people could reasonably assume that you're in the wrong line of work.

For prejudice?

One of the questions Norm asks in his profile series is: do you have any prejudices that you're willing to acknowledge?

The 'willing to acknowledge' forms a crucial part of the query. Simply to ask if one had any would be a pointless question; anything than an answer in the affirmative would be a lie because we all have them. Chris Dillow acknowledged his in this post 'in praise of class hatred' where he displays an animus towards posh twats that only my friend Will can match. The response, if you read the comments below the post, was almost uniformly condemnatory. This struck me as disproportionate for two reasons:

1) The blogosphere is full, on a daily basis, of barely-concealed hatred towards various groups in society - immigrants, Muslims, Jews - sorry, Israelis - the unemployed, the poor, the young... People for the most part who don't have any power. Chris, on the other hand, chooses a representative from a group that does.

2) He was honest about this, which is more than can be said for quite a lot of other people. I'd suggest to you all that, for example, under the average post you get about education in the blogosphere you often get comments displaying prejudices of quite an extraordinary nature - ranging from the need to ensure less eligibility in the welfare system to concerns about the dysgenic breeding of the feckless poor. Persistent, Victorian, unacknowledged is what they are.

In any event, the incensed commentators missed an important point that I thought implicit in the post, which is that prejudice - if we can dispense with the narrow PSE definition of the word - does not always have a malign influence. Or at least it is something we all have and shouldn't be understood as a phenomenon that only shows its face when confronted with foreigners or people whose lifestyles we disapprove of.

Let me give you the following example to try and explain what I mean. The death penalty: I oppose it and there has never been a time in my life when I've thought differently. But the thing is, I don't find the arguments against it anything like as persuasive as I used to.

While others who know more about this will no doubt correct me, as far as I understand it most of the anti-death penalty arguments are based on utilitarianism, which I don't agree with in general and with this particular example I don't see why it would exclude the death-penalty anyway. It isn't even obvious to me how a utilitarian philosophy would proscribe executing the innocent and letting the guilty go free, if that increased the happiness of the greater number.

You could argue that it is simply wrong to kill people, period. But this would require pacifism, which is to say one would have to give up any notion of self-defence - which I couldn't agree with either.

The only argument I'm left with is that it can be, and is, unjust in its application. But this is an argument for justice - which is to say greater equality - not against the death-penalty per se and this does not, in any event, provide the emotional basis on which people passionately argue this issue.

Yet I'm still against it. Maybe this is because I dislike the sort of people who support it - people I imagine to be hangin' and floggin' Daily Heil readers who not-so-secretly hate the poor. No-one denounces me for being prejudiced for feeling like this. But I am nevertheless.

[Cross-posted to DSTPFW]

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

For the Archbishop('s critics)

Well, some of them anyway. Meant to leave this one alone but after reading dsquared's comments casually slinging the accusation of racism at Butterflies and Wheels - a blog that criticises all religion and all manners of superstition without fear or favour - I feel the need to pick it up again. Because he's not alone in apparently believing that the only possible motivation for criticising stupid comments made by the unelected head of an institution that discriminates against gays and women and which controls around a third of the schools in England is 'Islamaphobia' and/or hostility to 'intellectuals'. I really must demur. Here's two or three of the criticisms of the critics, which I intend to criticise.

1) What about Ben Dith courts?

There may be reasons to think that what the Archbishop was proposing is not comparable - but my objection to this line is a little different: why is it being assumed that critics of the Archbishop support the status quo? Personally I was unaware that Ben Dith courts existed and I can't say my knowledge of them has grown much in the last few days but if they legally institutionalise religious patriarchy, I think they should go too.

But this point goes to the heart of the matter, in my view. The fact that there is an established church at all means anomalies must by definition exist in the treatment of religions. Rowan Williams is of the view that this should be evened out by extending the privileges enjoyed by the Anglican church to other religious groups. This appears to be the view of others as well. Some of us disagree and think the solution would be a removal of the Church of England's privileges and a clearer separation of religion from the state. If you think the only reason one can have for taking such a view is 'Islamophobia' then quite frankly you're something of an asshole.

2) Critics of the Archbishop are anti-intellectual.

I'm sure Rowan Williams is both but I really must insist on drawing a distinction between an intellectual and an academic. Williams is certainly the latter. Now, I quite like academics. Some of my friends are academics. My own father was an academic. And I rather liked some of the academics who taught me at university. I especially appreciate those academics who have the ability to speak without all the 'unclarity'. Sometimes, though, I fear these are in a minority. Certain disciplines are worse than others. Sociologists are widely, and rightly, derided for their marginal propensity to talk shite. But from my own experience I would suggest educationalists often outmatch even sociologists with their impressive ability to talk jargon-laden bullshit than signifies very little. And theologians. I did some theology at university and I can assure you, few people can compete with theologians for the sheer obscurity of their dense and often near-mystical language. This is, in case anyone hadn't noticed, the background that Williams comes from and the idea that it is 'anti-intellectual' to point out the opaque nature of his speech is absurd. As Matthew Sinclair, who has been excellent on this subject, put it: "[W]e need to stop seeing dense language as a signal for intellect and deep thinking." Exactly so. Anyway, it wasn't the speech people were responding to it but his own summary of it on Radio 4 - which brings me to the final point.

3) Rowan Williams is being witch-hunted and is the victim of the 24hr media.

Ooh, read the speech, read the speech - you can't criticise the Archbishop on the basis of what he said on the radio. Thus saith the Archbishop's defenders. And why the hell not? Look: either his comments on the radio were a fair summary of what he said, in which case people are perfectly entitled to respond to his comments as they stood - or they were not, which means that the Archbishop is himself incapable of explaining what he meant in plain English. If this is so, he hardly has any grounds for complaining that others have misunderstood him.

I have to say, as someone with an interest in history, I can't help being struck by how light and momentary are the conditions that constitute a 'witch-hunt' these days. If the Church of England was disestablished, he'd be at perfect liberty to float potty ideas because these would be a matter only for his rapidly-diminishing congregation. But since disestablishment isn't going to happen any time soon, what he says is a matter for everyone. Conservatives are perfectly entitled to criticise the head of a conservative establishment for failing to be, well, conservative. And those of us who do not favour the retention of this conservative institution should be allowed to record our embarrassment that someone who is routinely described as 'thoughtful' and 'intellectual' does not appear to be able to understand what his job consists of. And we should also be allowed to record our objection to the idea that the solution to the anomalies in the way in which religions are treated in this country is to extend the privileges of the Church of England to all other 'faith groups'. For this is bound to favour groups rather than individuals, men rather than women, and the sacred over the secular. And if that isn't reactionary, I don't know what is.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

People losing their damn minds #22

It would appear that the latest damn mind losing certificate has to be issued to Rowan Williams for his frankly barmy suggestion that the incorporation of sharia law into British law is 'unavoidable'. I would have thought it was not only distinctly avoidable but pretty goddam unlikely. So unlikely, in fact, that you could file it under 'ain't got a snowball's chance in hell'.

It's not only an appallingly bad idea, the reasoning behind this latest contribution from the Bish belongs to a special category of lunacy. Consider the following, for example:
"Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4's World at One that the UK has to "face up to the fact" that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system."
I mean, really! Relate? How exactly the fuck do you 'relate' to a legal system? You don't have to 'relate' to a legal system; it isn't like your goddam mother-in-law where you have to try and get along - just following the rules will do. Come to think of it, it isn't always strictly necessary or possible to relate to your mother-in-law - but I digress...
"He argues that Muslims find themselves "faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty" and that Britain will only be able to come to terms with its multi-faith society if its legal system learns to adapt."
Do they? Which ones? I'm not sure they do. I can assure Bish that this 'stark alternative' is a figment of his fevered imagination and isn't really worth worrying about. Lemme give an example: we have laws regarding the consumption of alcohol in this country but banning it outright is something this government hasn't quite gotten around to yet. Are we seriously being asked to believe that because alcohol is haram for Muslims they're experiencing a huge conflict of 'loyalty' here? Aren't most of them simply not drinking it? There seems precious little evidence that they feel the need for a court to tell them not to drink it, as far as I can see.

This whole 'loyalty to the state' is a bit suspect anyway but the thing is, however you define it, I think most people would agree the state is nothing if not a legal order. It seems then a rather eccentric solution to 'integrating into the state' to effectively advocate the creation of an alternative one for Muslims.
"Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts - I think that's a bit of a danger"."
One law for everybody. He makes it sound intolerant, even sinister, instead of what it is: the principle of equality before the law - this being a quaint notion that some of us think approximates most people's idea of justice and might just be worth holding on to.

Bish: D'ya think he ever stops himself and thinks, "Hey wait a minute, I haven't a fucking clue what I'm talking about?" Neither do I. I think the reason for this is he's out of his fucking gourd.

What were the worst mistakes in British history?

We'll overlook the fact that he can't tell the difference between British and English history because Chris Dillow's treatment of this question - prompted by this and this in relation to the US - is very thought-provoking. How does one even begin to answer such a question? I'd suggest that it can't be, really. It's not just a question of survivor-bias, or the fact that you're comparing history with a future you can't know: an equally big question as far as I'm concerned is where to take your starting point? I'll pick three from the twentieth century to illustrate these problems.

1) India. I'm reading Andrew Marr's tome at the moment and while it's too early to say whether it's any good, he's already said something I strongly agree with: we British are - because we've been taught this way - far too complacent with this idea that we handled decolonization so much better than everyone else.* The truth is, the speed of British withdrawal indirectly cost something in the region of a million lives. I'm not suggesting that we should have held on to India for much longer because as well as being morally unacceptable, it was simply not feasible for the near bankrupt war-ravaged British nation. Rather, the view of Churchill et al should have been strongly resisted and decolonization should have began in the interwar period and managed more slowly. This, of course, assumes a starting point of Britain having an empire at all, so you could say building one in the first place was the greatest mistake. Then you could go back a bit and locate the problem with having this big fuck-off navy. What did we need it for? But then from a history point of view, we've got a couple of insurmountable problems: we can't know what the world would have looked like otherwise and we're also thrown back into making pious and hopelessly vague generalisations. If you follow this intellectual road to its logical conclusion, you'd be as well giving up the pretence of talking about actual historical problems, putting a John Lennon CD on and imagine all the people living life in peace instead.

2) Britain's participation in WWI. This one's more straightforward. Here I eschew the revisionist school and stick to the traditional line: it wasn't worth it. I have no idea what Europe would have looked like but since the British casualty rate in WWI was so much higher than in WWII, fighting a Germany that no reasonable person could compare to Hitler's, it simply wasn't worth it. This is not to assume that British non-participation would have averted war, and I certainly don't think that a French defeat by the Kaiser would have been desirable - but I'd take the view that Germany would have failed anyway. Couple of possibilities: they would have simply lost, having repeated Napoleon's mistake of trying to take over Russia or a stalemate would have produced a different settlement to the one we got, which brings me to the third point.

3) Failure to enforce the Treaty of Versailles. I don't quite follow the standard school curriculum view here. Some of us think the Germans had a bit of a brassneck with all the complaining, given the terms they imposed on the Russians after the October Revolution. And while I don't think it's anything like as widely-held these days, the notion that Versailles was to blame for the German hyperinflation is flat wrong. Having said that, I'm not sure there's any merit in insisting, as Oliver Kamm does, that "[t]he notion that the Versailles Treaty imposed a punitive peace is a myth." I don't agree this is entirely a myth but the point is it can hardly have been in our interests, or the world's, to involve ourselves in the framing of a treaty that we then didn't have the faith or resolve to enforce. I assume Oliver Kamm would agree with this: having taken Versailles as a given, it was surely a catastrophic mistake to wait until the Wehrmacht marched into Poland? At what point should we have intervened? When Germany defaulted on Reparations? Or when they marched into the Rhineland? Or after the Anschluss? We can't know what the outcome would have been, what allies would have joined us, and we would certainly be foolish to assume that success would have been guaranteed - but today I think most people would assume that any point of intervention during Hitler's tearing of the Versailles Treaty would have been preferable to waiting for the sacrifice of the Czech nation.

I could go on but I'm boring myself. This is meant really only to illustrate the problems this sort of speculation throws up - the comparisons with what was against what might have been and the problem of where you take your starting point. But there's something else as well which connects this to another point I want to make. We have three examples here. People will no doubt disagree with my choices and my interpretation of them but for me they are examples of, respectively, over-speedy disengagement, over-hasty intervention and tardy intervention. All had, in my view, tragic consequences that could have been avoided or limited if a different course had been taken. But given that one can only speculate about this - and when one factors in the fact that we're talking about three rather different courses of action here, where the hell do people get this idea that there is one default position you can take with regards international relations and conflicts that automatically puts one in the right? This is another way of stating a question I've asked before: where do those commenting on the situation in the world today get their confidence from, exactly? From listening to too much John Lennon and not enough reading of history, I reckon.

*For 'everyone else' read 'The French' is most British history.
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