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Starting Monday...

...the Pentenary Special, Enemy: A Morality Tale. You can follow the link for a preview. A few brief notes before we begin:

  • During serials people sometimes hold off commenting until everything is posted, but in this case each part is essentially self-contained (although early pieces will sketch out the framework in broad strokes). The themes covered will be familiar to regular players of Only a Game so I encourage you to wade in whenever you like.
  • In case you were wondering, it is all non-fiction despite the allusion in the title!
  • I haven't written any Focus posts for Tuesdays over the next three months, as I hope the mini-campaign/serial  will generate discussion on its own, although I might write some supplemental pieces if the debate throws up a tangent.
  • I'll gradually update the part index with links to the individual parts, so the link at the end of each part can be used to access any previous part.
  • And finally, I'm pleased to announce that the distinguished British moral philosopher Mary Midgley has kindly agreed to an interview to bookend the series.

Have fun everyone!

Asylum Seeking Daleks!

This is a poem by Attila the Stockbroker (facebook/homepage) that I'm republishing as a bookend to this month's posts. It is dated 6 May 2002 and dedicated "For Ann Winterton".

Ironclad Dalek They claim their planet's dying:
that soon it's going to blow
And so they're coming here - they say
they've nowhere else to go....
With their strange computer voices
and their one eye on a pole
They're moving in next door and then
they're signing on the dole.....

Asylum seeking Daleks
are landing here at noon!
Why can't we simply send them back
or stick them on the moon?
It says here in the Daily Mail
they're coming here to stay -
The Loony Lefties let them in!
The middle class will pay......

They say that they're all pacifists:
that doesn't wash with me!
The last time I saw one I hid
Weeks behind the settee...
Good Lord - they're pink. With purple bumps!
There's photos of them here!
Not just extra-terrestial....
The bloody things are queer!

Yes! Homosexual Daleks
And they're sponging off the State!
With huge Arts Council grants
to teach delinquents how to skate!
It's all here in the paper -
I'd better tell the wife!
For soon they will EXTERMINATE
Our British way of life.....

This satire on crass ignorance
and tabloid-fostered fear
Is at an end. Now let me give
One message, loud and clear.
Golf course, shop floor or BNP:
Smash bigotry and hate!
Asylum seekers - welcome here.
You racists: emigrate!


Let That Be Your Last Battlefield Most of us live in a culture where we treat racism with extreme negativity, and being called a bigot is an insult most would prefer to avoid. Yet incredibly one form of racism is so widely practised that a great many people do not even consider it a form of bigotry, viewing it rather as an entirely rational and reasonable stance. I refer to a form of ethnic discrimination I shall term creedism.

By creedism I naturally refer to prejudice against specific creeds, which is to say, belief systems (religious or otherwise). Some will dispute the premise that creedism is a form of racism, but the United Nations has no qualms on this issue: it makes no distinction between ethnic discrimination and racial discrimination, and since ethnic groups can be founded on any common cultural apparatus (including language, religion, common ancestry, common territory and so forth) this means that, to the UN at least, creedism is a form of racism.

An initial objection likely to be raised is that if (say) Islamic terrorists want to kill me, I have a right to discriminate against them. But who is it that you will discriminate against? If unknown people want to kill you, you have a right to attempt to defend yourself, and if known people try to kill you, you have a right to prosecute them. But either way, terrorists are still to be afforded the same rights as anyone else; they are subject to punishment for breaking laws, not for who they are. Furthermore, it is the vast minority of Muslims who are terrorists. It is pure creedism to extend a hatred for Islamic terrorists to the ethnic group they happen to belong to, i.e. Muslims, just as it is creedism for Islamic terrorists to hate all Westerners because of the atrocities that some have enacted against them.

We encounter creedism most commonly in two forms, one of which is vehemently criticised by liberal critics, the other is tacitly endorsed by some of the same individuals. The first form is the creedism the closed-minded follower of religion expresses towards people of other beliefs, something most commonly associated with the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although there are of course some subjective elements involved in the interpretation of religions, all three of these faiths are fundamentally opposed to creedism. In the case of Judaism, love they neighbour as thyself appears in Leviticus, long before Jesus elevated this idea to the status of “eleventh commandment” for Christians, and Islam is the religion which all but invented freedom of religion. Nonetheless, bigoted views are still expressed by certain vocal followers of these religions, and people justly criticise these views.

Precisely because the religious form is so widely and openly criticised, I believe the non-religious form can be more subtly pernicious. Prejudice against Christians, Muslims, or indeed followers of all religions, is held by a great many liberal intellectuals to be rationally validated; this is a gross case of creedism that deserves to be exposed to greater scrutiny. There is a tremendous variety of individual beliefs within any religious tradition; treating followers of any given path as all expressing the same negative traits is closely analogous to the thought process behind conventional racism. (Buddhism, oddly, is often excluded from this kind of attack, usually on account of a claim that it is a philosophy not a religion – an assertion that would render most professors of comparative religion dumbfounded!)

This kind of anti-religious creedism is sometimes disguised by making the target religion, rather than people of religious faith, who can then be portrayed as helpless victims of their religion. But a religion is nothing more than the beliefs and practices of the people belonging to a particular set of ethnic groups. Abstracting this into a concept, “religion”, that one then opposes is just as much a form of racism as it was when 17th century intellectuals (such as Hobbes) abstracted non-European cultures under such notions as “savage” and “uncivilised”. These terms would ultimately power imperialistic invasions under the guise of “civilising missions”. Attempts to “emancipate” children from their family's traditions might risk repeating the same grotesque error.

Some modern Humanists seem to be largely unaware of the terrible tensions involved in being caught between a commitment to Human Rights on the one hand and a crusade against religion on the other. Certain Humanist organisations say they are working for an open and inclusive society upholding freedom of belief and speech, but  simultaneously fight for an end to a perceived “privileged position” for religion in law and education. Shouldn't the rational pursuit of this first objective entail the expansion of the protections offered to religious ethnic groups to similar non-religious groups, rather than the attempt to remove these protections? To do otherwise is to attack our notions of Human Rights, not to defend them.

The irony here is that Humanists could earn these protections instantly if they were willing to acknowledge Humanism as a religion but this idea is apparently unbearable to those who have chosen to treat religion as a synonym for superstition. It is preferable, it seems, to fight the existing laws than to benefit from them at the expense of one's pride. One cannot willingly concede to be protected under the umbrella of a term that one deploys as a pejorative; to propose otherwise is to unleash serious cognitive dissonance, and thus anger. It is anger and its congealed form, hatred, in its social role of establishing outgroups to oppose, which drives racism of all kinds, including both kinds of creedism discussed here religious and anti-religious.

Creedism is a widespread and highly destructive form of racism that advances in part because its practitioners frequently do not see their attitude as racist. That some of the people liberal creedists oppose are even more blatantly creedist than they themselves only serves to obfuscate the reality of the situation; it is as if a black racial supremacist justified their bigotry by pointing at a white racial supremacist for contrast, claiming I'm nothing like that!”. That there can be two sides to a racist coin doesn't make that coin legal tender for anyone committed to what is enshrined in our Human Rights agreements. Those rights include freedom of belief, without which the very concept of liberty is undermined. The sooner we all accept this, the closer we will be to curtailing the harmful influence of racism in all its forms.

Imagine There's No 'Imagine'

John_lennon_imagine I have always disliked John Lennon's song Imagine, which for me is the worst kind of muddle-headed fantasy. It proclaims a desire for “the world to be as one” by the method of abolishing religion, nations and property. It's a good thing we have the Beatles song Revolution as counterpoint to make it clear it's only the Marxist ends Lennon supported and not the horrific means deployed under that ideology in the twentieth century. This aside, I have indeed taken the time to imagine what is prescribed in the song – and it's not a pretty thought.

I have imagined what would have happened to the dream of Martin Luther King, who died three years before this song was written, had he not been inspired by his religion to fight injustice while Lennon was “wandering the corridors of his mind”, whacked-out on LSD. I have imagined a world without nations (sometimes even with wistfully naïve optimism) and in particular I have wondered if this alleged utopia would be closer to Brave New World's totalitarian World State or Max Max's violent anarchy. I have imagined how one would have any kind of security at all in a world without property unless some kind of religion-like or nation-like belief system could sustain amicable relations.

On the whole, I would rather imagine a world with better religions, nations and property rights than a dystopia without any of these things.

Salmon Rushdie, drawing on Lennon's twisted vision, urges the six billionth child to “put aside childish things”, by which he means religion. Given the story of his life, I can understand Mr. Rushdie's hatred of traditional belief systems, but this asinine linking of religion to childhood grows tiresome. Blind rebellion against tradition is quintessentially teenage; it scarcely counts as adult behaviour. Paul, whom Rushdie quotes, at least had the maturity to admit in the next verse that he could only see “in a mirror, darkly.” Mr. Rushdie, like most teens, clearly knows better.

Imagine there's no heaven? It's easy if you try, apparently. Frankly, those tedious door-to-door evangelists are more subtle with their pleadings for metaphysical conversion. I prefer instead to imagine there's no attempt to enforce any single belief system, religious or non-religious; no bigotry between people of differing identities; no judgement based upon a person's presumed beliefs rather than their actual sentiments and actions. And that, Mr. Lennon and Mr. Rushdie, is not easy, no matter how hard you try.

10 Common Mistakes About Religion

There are all manner of things people believe about religion that at root are confusions of one kind or another. Here are ten typical examples:

1. Science has superseded religion

Modern science is an empirical research programme. Religions are traditional beliefs and stories concerning metaphysics and ethics. So to say science has superseded religion is rather like saying the space shuttle has superseded sausages.

2. Religions are founded upon immutable dogmas

Anyone trying to make this claim has to explain how it can be that the beliefs and practices of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and so forth have changed so radically over the past few millennia. The relationship between static dogmas and the religions they have accreted from are like fossil creatures compared to their living animal relatives. No tradition begins set in stone (the Ten Commandments not withstanding!).

3. Either one or zero religions are true

While there is clearly an orthodox belief that implies this proposition, it is by no means the only perspective – both Sufi Islam and Hinduism have touted religious plurality for millennia, for instance. Also, consider that in science the incompatibility between relativity and quantum mechanics is not taken to mean that either one or neither model is true, rather it is assumed future theory will reconcile them – similarly, no-one can rule out the possibility that multiple religions might contain key elements of the truth.

4. Religions dictate hatred for other religions

The distrust or contempt of outgroups is a part of human psychology independent of religion. Hatred between nations, ethnicities and even rival sporting allegiances show that this runs far deeper than traditional belief systems. And of course, the contempt certain non-religious individuals feel for religious people underlines this point.

5. The First Amendment mandates the exclusion of religion

The point of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the constitution of the United States was to prevent government from interfering with individual liberty in the practice of religion. It was intended to protect religious rights, not to quash religious expression.

6. Karma is good

In the oldest Dharmic traditions, there was no conception of 'good karma' – karma was understood as a negative consequence of human action. In the image of the Wheel of Karma, evil deeds caused a giant stone wheel to turn thus crushing humanity beneath it, and the only way to stop its destruction was for everyone to avoid causing evil, thus preventing the wheel from turning. This can be interpreted metaphorically rather than metaphysically – the idea that evil deeds in turn cause further evil to occur can be grasped intuitively as part of the nature of human interaction, and is a common theme in global religion (see Galatians 6:7 for the Christian version).

7. Jihad means holy war

This is only one meaning of the word, and not even the most relevant to the Muslim faiths. In fact, 'jihad' literally means “struggle”, and in the Arabic language peacefully-conducted campaigns such as Gandhi's fight for Indian independence and the women's liberation movement are considered 'jihad'. Even when jihad is taken to mean physical warfare, it's objective according to the Qu'ran must be to uproot persecution, and the murder of innocents is expressly excluded (see the Qur'an, 5:32).

8. Hinduism is polytheistic

'Polytheistic' is a term that Christian scholars used to describe traditional Indian beliefs that, frankly, they did not fully comprehend. In fact, Hindu beliefs are predominantly monotheistic or panentheistic (i.e. the divine interpenetrates all of nature, and extends timelessly beyond it), but there are also pantheistic, polytheistic and indeed atheistic interpretations. It is a truly diverse collection of beliefs.

9. The Pope cannot make mistakes

Papal infallibility does not mean the Pope of the Catholic Church is incapable of mistakes. It simply means that there is no possibility of error when the Pope declares new dogma for Catholics. In fact, this tenet is rather trivial and many Catholic scholars doubt it was necessary to declare it at all. A gainful comparison can be made with the situation facing the referee of a sporting match, who is the ultimate authority in interpreting the rules and could be said to enjoy “umpire infallibility” (although the umpire, unlike the Pope, cannot declare new rules).

10. The time of religion has passed

Some post-modernists proclaim that the age of grand narratives is over, saying that once we believed in such stories, but now we have moved beyond these primitive practices. Yet clearly this is also a grand narrative – once upon a time there was religion, then we lived happily ever after. Human culture and identity is inextricably intertwined with its stories, making it highly likely that religion will be part of human life for as long as our species is around – although what forms our future religions might take is anyone's guess.

Games, I Remember Those...

Been a while since I posted a round-up of anything game-related, principally because I have been thoroughly disinterested with videogames recently, as they increasingly feel like work and not play.

  • 3D was the story from E3, of course! And the moral of the story seems to be: no-one really cares.
  • It's a testament to how rarely I put on the 360 that it updates itself every time that I do. But I've dusted it off recently to play Chime, a puzzle game best described as Tetris meets Qix. It's the most engaging puzzler to come along in quite a while, plus 60% of the sales go to children's charities.
  • I'm absolutely dying for a good 2D exploration game in the manner of the old flick-screen explorers like Sabre Wulf, Scuba Dive, Sacred Armour of Antirad, Arac the Arachnidrod, Wizard's Lair or Starquake. Outside of Metroid and Castlevania, it seems nothing like this ever gets made any more... PixelJunk: Shooter gave me a short fix, at least.
  • Although I'm not playing videogames very much, I'm still enjoying boardgames. I think my wife and I have now racked up more hours playing Arkham Horror than any other boardgame I've played in my life, including Car Wars. Scary.
  • And finally, Only a Game stalwart Mory Buckman has a new gamelet out, entitled The March of Bulk. It's a non-game in which you perambulate an elephant - I had lots of fun messing about with it and finding all the things you can do!

I Write Like...

Jim Swallow drew my attention to a site called I Write Like which claims to analyse your writing style and liken it to a famous author. I ran it a couple of times using different posts for a source, and got different results.

The one that comes up most often for me is...

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

...although I have no idea who that is. I also had it suggest...

I write like
Margaret Atwood

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

...which is flattering. Less so when it suggests...

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Russell on the Financial Crisis

Bertrand Russell, writing in 1932, noted that unregulated financial markets were not in the interests of society:

There are some activities in which the motive of private profit leads, on the whole, to the promotion of the general interest, and others in which this is not so. Finance is now definitely in the latter class, whatever it may have been in the past. The result is an increasing need of governmental interference with finance. It will be necessary to consider finance and industry as forming a single whole, and to aim at maximising the profits of the whole, not of the financial part separately. Finance is more powerful than industry when both are independent, but the interests of industry more nearly coincide with those of the community than do the interests of finance. This is the reason than the world has been brought to such a pass by the excessive power of finance.