Thursday, 17 April 2014

Is David Cameron Right to Call Britain a Christian Country?

Many were surprised to see David Cameron take on a new persona, that of an evangelical Christian. In an article he wrote for the Church Times, our beloved PM made had the following to say:

“I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives.”
These claims are very controversial, yet the PM seems to think they are sensible recommendations. When he says we should be more “confident” about our status as a Christian country, he says this very matter-of-factly. On what basis does he think Britain is a Christian country? If he thinks the country’s religious history defines the country as ‘Christian’, then it makes as much sense to call Mexico a ‘Mayan’ country. The past is the past and the supreme influence the Church used to have in politics and culture does not necessarily spill over into the present.
If the PM thinks the religiosity of people in this country defines the country as ‘Christian’, then he is clearly unaware of the trend towards more secularism, atheism and non-religiosity. Church attendance is waning dramatically and Christianity is ceasing to become an important factor in people’s lives. If anything, it makes more sense to call Britain a ‘secular’ or ‘pluralistic’ country, given the obvious (and necessary) separation of Church and State we have, and the diversity of religions and belief-systems.
Cameron’s insistence on “expanding the role of faith-based organisations” is highly suspicious. In what way will the PM expand these organisations? Will he offer Christian organisations a public platform and influence in policy-making over and above other religious organisations? Is he in favour of directing more public funds towards Christian schools? Many secularists are up in arms about these anti-secularist sentiments.
Why the PM wants us to get more “evangelical” about Christianity I do not know. If it’s because he feels so passionate about his own faith and commitment to the Church of England, then he seems to be disregarding the passions and commitments of other religions. Indeed, as he himself stated, he has personally felt the “healing power” of the Church. But he’s really shooting himself in the foot here. If he’s being genuine about this, then he will come across as a fanatic and loony to many, but if he’s being disingenuous, then he’s merely acting as a populist, a puppet pandering to the established Church.
Because of his own biased agenda, he is unconcerned with people getting “evangelical” about their own faith (or lack of faith) or any belief-system for that matter. Surely we should get more “evangelical” about values which make a difference: human rights, liberty, environmentalism, etc. But Cameron doesn’t touch on incorporating these values into politics; instead he wants to “infuse politics” with Christian “ideals and values”. And sure, the values he lists (charity, compassion, responsibility, humility, hard work and love) should be promoted, but to claim that these are exclusively Christian values is ignorant and extremely patronising. These values existed before Christianity and they can exist without it. These values should be infused into politics as universal human values – describing them as ‘Christian’ is religious arrogance at its finest. Many atheists will no doubt take offence at Cameron’s claim that religion can help “people to have a moral code”, as if religion has a monopoly on morality.
Of course, these surprising claims are not out of the blue. They are clearly tactical. In fact, these claims come after clashes between the Coalition and the Church over the failure to tackle the causes of food poverty, as well as Cameron’s decision to introduce deep welfare cuts. It is slightly ironic, then, that the PM is championing values such as compassion, charity and love, whilst simultaneously disadvantaging the poor and vulnerable groups through these cuts.
Earlier this month, we also had the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, saying “militant atheists” should get over the fact that Britain is a Christian country. In 2012, Mr Pickles stopped an attempt by supposed “militant atheists” to ban prayers in public meetings. He argued such a ban would be a form of intolerance. Clearly the communities secretary does not understand the distinction between intolerance and secularism. Banning Christian prayers in public meetings is not intolerance; it is to ensure the State does not favour or endorse one religion over other religions. It is a position based on fairness and impartiality. British politics must outgrow the views expressed by Cameron, Pickles, and others who are stuck in the past.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

How the Mind Compartmentalises Reality

The human mind is geared towards compartmentalising the world. What this means is that the mind has an in-built tendency to divide the inner mental world and outer world into discrete sections or categories. The inner mental world is full of categories such as memories, goals, personality traits, and concepts which divide external reality into distinct categories. Our mind forms abstract general terms which allow us to give the same label to many similar looking objects (i.e. tree, table, person etc.) as well as more specific labels for the manifold variations of these ‘general’ objects.

This compartmentalisation of the world into linguistic boxes (words) changes how we perceive reality. A world whose components are defined with linguistic concepts is a world which is fragmented. However, the dividing of reality into compartments helps us to make sense of the world and to navigate through it – both through mental and external environments. There is no evolutionary value in perceiving reality in its totality or to have sensory and mental experiences free from conceptual and linguistic categories. Distinctions are made between one’s self and others, between one’s self and one’s environment; as well as distinctions in one's environment, which define which aspects are safe, hazardous, friendly, valuable, and so on. All of these distinctions are crucial for survival and well-being.

Without conceptual and linguistic categories we would not be able to make sense of the world or build a system of knowledge based on it. Without such categories we could not have enterprises such as science, logic, philosophy and mathematics. We exist in a world rich in meaning, structure and pattern. Language creates an even more complex, multi-layered picture of reality. This perception of the world is inescapable, yet many humans have strived to strip these categories away from reality, leaving only a pure phenomenological experience in all its totality. This is what Eastern mystics have attempted to experience through meditation, where one’s attention is focused on the experience of the present moment, free from the human impulse to force labels and definitions onto it.

Through meditation and other techniques, such as the use of psychedelics, such experiences are possible. Concepts and words are discarded and what is left is raw sense data, offering a much different version of reality. All that is left is awareness and naked existence. Not only can such experiences be intense (if only fleeting) they can also be ineffable, which means the experience cannot or should not be expressed in language. An awareness of the present moment, for example, is ineffable because as soon as it is described with words, the experience transmutates into something else. The experience also cannot be described because it is a private, unique and fleeting experience. The innate properties of perception, such as conscious awareness or sensory qualities (colour, sound, taste, smell and touch) are indescribable. Philosophers also use the term qualia to refer to the subjectivity of perception or the way things seem to us. The philosopher Daniel Dennett contends that examples of qualia are ineffable. Qualia, such as 'redness' and 'coldness', can only be apprehended by direct experience. All words can do is to help one recall the experience.

Take the DMT experience as another example; a mystical experience which is often described as ineffable. On a side note, the whole concept of ineffability is somewhat paradoxical, because the use of the word invalidates its meaning – is an experience really indescribable if we use the term ‘ineffable’ to describe it? Despite this logical conundrum, known as the Ineffable Paradox, we can still use the term to designate an experience which cannot be described in any appropriate way – no description can adequately inform someone what a DMT experience is like. Some words are commonly attached to the experience: ‘entities’, ‘hyperspace’, ‘another dimension’, but this is just the human mind desperately trying to make sense of the experience so that it can incorporate and integrate it into the one's worldview.

Attempts to describe the experience are valuable since they allow people to somewhat recall the experience, but if the DMT trip is sufficiently powerful (a 'breakthrough' experience), it will forever remain outside of one's conceptual and linguistic capabilities. The experience is often too complex and too alien to relate in words. It is unintelligible. But the human mind must use some concepts to describe it, whether they’re abstract (‘being outside of time and space’) or comparisons (‘it was like a circus’ or ‘the place looked like an Escher maze’) in order to avoid cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is excessive mental distress, discomfort or confusion caused by conflicting ideas or worldviews. Our mind may not want to accept the ineffability of the DMT experience because to do so would create dissonance between normal conscious experience and altered conscious experience.

Philosophy, mysticism and religion has long recognised the ineffable aspects of human existence, despite the fact our minds evolved to be categorising machines. But not everything fits into neat little boxes, nor should we try to do this, some say, since this undertaking would detract from the experience or distort its nature. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein stated in his Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” In the foundational text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, the author Lao Tsu says, "Tao can be told but any definition given is not perpetual; the name can be named but whatever name given is not perpetual.” Tao is not a 'name' for a 'thing' but the underlying natural order of the universe whose ultimate essence is ‘eternally nameless’. Nevertheless, the ineffability of Tao can still be experienced.

The God of the Old Testament is described in a similar way: "Moses said to God, 'Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your fathers has sent me to you," and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM THAT I AM" (Exodus 3:13-14). The mind naturally compartmentalises both the inner and outer world, but as we have seen, some experiences simply lie beyond the mind’s conceptual and linguistic capabilities. These unique experiences are intrinsically incommunicable.