Category Archives: Philosophy

Atheists, God and asking the wrong questions

Not all atheists, obviously – but too many – obsess over God. They ask religious people what their proof for God is, the religious people invariably reply that they are happy with their personal proof that God(s) exists. The atheist says this evidence is inadequate. No one is changed as a result of this exchange, in fact it may serve to entrench people in their positions.

As a Maybeist I find myself well placed to annoy deists and atheists in equal measure. As someone whose primary spiritual focus is finding inspiration sacred, I don’t fit the assumptions many atheists and deists have about what belief even means.

My personal belief is that I couldn’t care less who anyone does or does not worship, or why. I am in no place to judge what they get out of it, although I remain concerned about the devaluing of women in many of the world religions, attitudes to LGBTQ folk, and attitudes towards the wellbeing of the planet – sexism, racism and ecocide are just as likely to come from believers as non believers, I suspect. However, these are all things that can be dealt with by considering the words and deeds of the (non)believer, with no reference to any external agency.

We need to hold each other responsible for what we do, and do not do as a consequence of our beliefs, politics and prejudices. At the same time, we could also try respecting each other for the good things we may be inspired to do by our various beliefs.

I, for example, find the atheist habit of making it all about proving the existence of God both boring and at best useless. It distracts from the issue of discussing what people do and holding people to account. On the other hand, I celebrate atheists who’ve stopped with this pointless game and are asking much more interesting questions about the role of religion, the political power of religion, the things people do with religions that need examining. I have huge respect for Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists.

We should be asking about the financial power of religions, about the prejudice religion can fuel. No religion should consider itself above the law or not obliged to hold up the rights and dignities of all humans. When we’re demanding proof of other people’s Gods, no matter how we frame it, we take attention away from what humans do in the name of their God – and those responses are diverse. Not all Muslims are terrorists. Not all Christians hate LGBTQ folk. Not all Satanists are evil – in fact from what I’ve seen, many are excellent examples of humanity when you look at what they actually do. It pays to ask better questions.


Hoarding and Gifting

We live in a culture where wealth is expressed through hoarding, and through the ownership of prestige things – big houses, yachts, aeroplanes etc. However, this is not the only way to express wealth and power. Many of our Pagan ancestors were much more into the idea of showing off your wealth by ostentatiously giving it away. The underlying psychology of the two positions is fascinating.

Hoarding is what you do when you fear scarcity. You create a big pile to sit on, so that you, and you alone can benefit if things get tough. Hoarding is the response to an unfair, unkind world that will turn on you and take away your good fortune. The pile is never big enough to let the hoarder feel truly safe.

Gifting assumes that you have the power to generate more resources. You can give away everything, because there will be scope to make new. It assumes your own prowess is equal to whatever the future throws at you and comes from a place of optimism and confidence.

There are things about both stances that create feedback loops. If you hoard, then you will generate jealousy and resentment in those around you. Your bigger pile may increase their feelings of scarcity. Hoards invite theft, and in an every man for himself scenario, people won’t help if things go awry. The gifting approach by contrast creates loyalty and support. These are the people who will cheerfully go on the next raid with you, plant the next season’s crops for you, pull out all the stops in an emergency because when times are good, you share it around. When it’s their turn to be the one who can give ostentatiously, the odds are that they will. And thus the person who can gift well and reliably has every reason to expect help when they float some crazy new project out there.

Hoarding takes resources out of use. Gifting keeps them moving towards where they are needed. Hoarding leaves the hoarder fearing the jealousy and theft of others. Gifting lets the gifter feel bountiful and in control.


Questioning free speech

Too often over the last year I’ve seen ‘free speech’ used to silence argument. Most problematically, those of us who defend human rights are told we have to be inclusive and tolerant of hate speech, or we aren’t really tolerant at all and the left is one big hypocritical lie. Or we’re told that by being inclusive we’re supporting Muslim fundamentalists, as though there is no scope for nuance in any of this.

“I may not like what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Now, when it comes down to ‘like’ I’m fine with this. I don’t need to like anyone else’s ideas or agree with them. You may favour a different actor to play Batman. You may hate a book I loved, support a different political party, etc etc. But there is a line, and on the other side of that line is speech that isn’t ok. Not matters of taste and preference, but talk aimed to destroy the rights, freedoms and lives of people. You don’t like gay porn? Fine, by all means say so and don’t watch it. You don’t like gay people? I find that weird and prejudiced, but there we go. I won’t like you, and we’re still at the ‘like’ level. You announce that gay people should be punished for being gay? We now have an issue over your ‘right’ to free speech. Feel free to swap in any minority group, women, any pro-abuse or pro-exploitation talk, and any talk of eco-suicide being somehow desirable, or other living things being expendable for human profit, and I’ll take issue.

What we’re talking about here isn’t just hot air. ‘I don’t like’ is free speech – it may be vile and uncivilized, but it is just speech and personal opinion. As it happens, I don’t like right wing supporters. As soon as that speech becomes a call for action, it changes. I don’t want to see people lose their rights, dehumanised, made more vulnerable. There’s a lot of other hateful outcomes I don’t want either. If someone is calling for an action I would fight against, I’d rather fight it at the talking stage – it’s better that way. Human rights do not award a select few the ‘right’ to diminish others. Refusing the idea that some should have the right to dominate and punish others over matters of difference is not an attack on the ‘rights’ of a would-be oppressor and I’m tired of seeing it suggested otherwise.

Free speech doesn’t mean a right to be listened to, taken seriously or supported. It does in fact mean that anyone else who wants to challenge what is said has the right to speak it. However, I think we need to deal with the idea that speech is somehow safe, that it’s ok to say things that would lead to destroying lives. Speech that calls for action needs treating in line with the action called for. This is why we already have laws about inciting violence and hate speech.

Free speech may be a key part of democracy, but it doesn’t work without responsibility. Use that freedom to express ideas and intentions that would damage democracy – crushing the opposition, denying rights to specific groups and the such – and as far as I’m concerned, the person doing it has lost any right to hide behind the ideas of democracy to protect their toxic thinking. Use free speech to undermine freedom and equality, and there has to be a robust response. Democracy is a collection of values and ideas, using one to undermine the others is not legitimate.

Faced with haters who want to harm others, we will not have the luxury of being able to uphold every last good principle we possess about peace and inclusion. I’d rather we try to head this off while it’s more a question of hate speech than violent action, because that is the road to least harm. And on reflection, I don’t think we should allow hate speech to qualify as free speech, and should challenge and reject it accordingly.


Choosing to Learn

I was very taken recently with Imelda Almqvist’s blog about Trump as a teacher (read it here). Imelda’s underlying philosophy is that we are all here to teach each other. I have a similar line of thought – that everything has the potential to teach us, but it’s up to us to decide what we want to learn.

Any situation can offer multiple outcomes in terms of what we might choose to learn. We could choose to learn from Trump that we can’t have nice things, the world is full of hate and there’s no point trying. It’s not the only possible teaching available, as Imelda points out.

Choosing what to learn is about consciously choosing who we want to be and the direction we want to move in. The trouble is that the vast majority of learning we do through life is done unconsciously. We absorb information from what’s around us and from the experiences we’ve had. Often we don’t dig into it, so we get knocked down by the people who attack us, and demoralised by the shit peddlers and we learn to compete and control and scrap over resources as though they were finite when they aren’t while wasting other resources as though they were infinite… which they aren’t…

Imelda’s blog post is not just interesting in its own right, it’s a map for taking a journey. If we want to choose what to learn, we’ve got to step back and contemplate things, put them in a wider context, delve about in them. A deliberate, contemplative engagement with the choices we have opens things up for us and gives us all the opportunity to take what we need from our experience, not what’s being pushed at us.


The community cost of injustice

There’s an obvious upfront cost to injustice that relates very immediately to whatever has gone wrong. What seems like a small unfairness to someone not immediately affected by it can seem like a small problem, not worth the hassle of sorting out. To the person on the receiving end, that small wrong can be life destroying. However, there is a larger and more subtle cost, one that we keep overlooking. Injustice breaks relationships and undermines communities. All the injustice that stems from prejudice. All the injustice that is intrinsic to rape and abuse. Social and financial injustice. All of it.

So, you’re affected by something, and it hurts you, and damages your life, your wellbeing. I’ll leave it to you to decide what sort of injustice to imagine or remember at this point. Nothing is done. The system refuses to change, the perpetrator is not tackled, no one says ‘hey that’s not ok and shouldn’t be happening.’ You are left with the immediate damage, and the knowledge that no one cares enough to do anything about it. A second level of hurt comes from this, and that hurt can go deeper than even the initial damage.

If your wounding is trivialised and/or ignored, then your relationship with the people who don’t care, changes. It may be that you have to see the injustice inherent in the system, and you can’t ever unsee it and feel easy about things again. It may be that you start seeing all people from the group that harmed you as a potential threat. You will likely feel cut off, and alienated, and angry, and there’s nowhere to take that because the people who most need to know about it have already made it pretty clear that they don’t care.

We’re doing this all the time. We do it at the state level. We collectively turn away from victims. We close our ears to them, we don’t listen to their stories. If we don’t think something would bother us, we decline to see why it would be a problem for anyone else. Injustice severs the natural bonds between people. It dehumanises all of us. When we look away. When we don’t worry because it’s not happening to us. When we say ‘oh, it’s not that big a deal really, stop making a fuss,’  we contribute. And so there is fear, and mistrust, resentment, bitterness, anger all bubbling away in so many places for so many reasons. It’s been there a long time and it won’t change easily, but change it must.


What do we tolerate in a genius?

I’m not offering any answers in this blog, I just thought it was worth asking the question. Extraordinary people often aren’t the easiest to get along with. This can be because they’re so involved with the awesome thing they do that they don’t connect with the rest of life easily. They may think differently, have different priorities. Some, it must be said, are a long way up their own bums, suffering from over-entitlement issues, ego trips, power trips… How good do you have to be for it to offset not being very good at all?

It comes up every time some high profile, brilliant person is caught doing something downright criminal. This happens a lot. See previous comments about ego trips, and feelings of entitlement… How much slack do we cut them because we like what they do? How much do we tolerate in the allegedly great and the good that we don’t find acceptable in ‘ordinary’ people. What’s the basis for the massive double standard? Is life a scales where the harm we do and the good we do (or the goals we score, or the songs we sell) can balance each other out? Does anything that isn’t about making up directly for our shit offset our shit?

When people are successful, the price of their success looks justified. They were bold, heroic, courageous. They kept to their vision, were disciplined, had integrity… When there is no success, those same actions look like utter selfishness and stupidity, often inflicting ongoing damage on friends and family. We frame it with the outcome and judge it accordingly. Obsession in the winner is something to be proud of. Obsession in the loser is probably going to be treated as a mental health problem. Dedication or self indulgence. Persistence or stupidity. How much money you make will probably define how everyone else judges you, including the people who bear the brunt of it. If you’re suffering for someone else’s heroic achievement, that’s pretty heroic too. If you’re suffering for someone else’s selfish indulgence, there’s not much to be proud of.

What price do we pay? What price do we ask others to pay? What are do we think we are entitled to? How does the idea of success reshape the ideas about entitlement? When does it become acceptable to stop making effort towards being a good sort of human being?


Hope

Evil can only be said to have truly won when there’s no one left who cares enough to resist it. Which is one of the reasons I don’t really believe in ideas of ultimate evil, just as I don’t believe in any kind of ultimate ‘good’ either. But, it is certainly true that humans can manifest evil through cruelty, and the acceptance of cruelty.

Faced with deliberate cruelty and oppression, hope is always the most important answer, and the key to resistance. We have to hold on to the hope that this can be overcome, and that enough of us aren’t up for it. We have to maintain our belief in other human beings, sometimes in defiance of all evidence to the contrary. We have to believe that collectively, we can and will do better.

Holding that belief protects us from paralysis. It stops us being totally overwhelmed even when things seem truly overwhelming.

Hope doesn’t have to flourish naturally. It is a path we can choose to walk, a way of being we can choose to adopt no matter what we’re up against. To hope is to refuse to submit to fear, to refuse despair, and apathy and inaction. Hope keeps us trying in whatever small ways we can, to make things better.

And if all else fails, what you do is keep the small flame of your hope alive, until you can find opportunities. We can keep hope alive for each other. We can talk about it, express it, imagine what it would look like, plan and tell stories. We can remind each other of times when hope was justified. We can keep saying ‘we can do better than this’. We are better than this. We aren’t beaten yet.

No matter what happens.

We can do better than this.

We can make things better than this.

It is worth keeping trying.

Never give up. Never surrender.


Being Goldendark

‘Goldendark’ is a term and concept being developed by author and PhD student Kevan Manwaring. I’ve been following his work for years (followers of the blog may be finding him a familiar name as I’ve reblogged him a few times now).

In his blog, Kevan sets out Goldendark thusly “This new approach I term ‘Goldendark’, an aesthetic which daringly engages with the ethical without descending into didacticism. While acknowledging the bleak reality of things it seeks to offer a glimmer of hope – a last gleam of the sun before it sets. This ‘gleam’ could be manifest in the arresting quality of the prose, the originality of the imagery, the freshness of the characterisation, or in redemptive plots.” It’s a work in progress and he’s clear about not wanting to be dogmatic.

When I first read it, the idea really resonated with me. The gothic speaks to me, I’m drawn to dark and creepy things. My formative reading experience on this side was Clive Barker, and the combination of the awe and the awful is something I’ve always been drawn to. Without contrast, you end up with homogenous sludge.

So I was very excited when Kevan reviewed Hopeless Maine and said “gets my Goldendark stamp of approval” (you can read the whole review here.)

The kinds of stories we tell have a massive impact on our culture. We live in dark times. But, if we wallow in the darkness, if all we give ourselves are grim dystopian futures, tyrannies and horror, we lock ourselves into that narrative. I have noticed a lot of people responding to recent political issues with references to The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. If we believe we’re heading that way, the odds of going there are greatly increased. Here’s to glimmers of hope.


Complexity, spirituality and Paganism

The world religions which have a monastic element tend to emphasise simplicity. However, these are often also religions where there’s an aspect of rejecting or overcoming this material world in favour of spirit. One of the things I’ve always liked about Paganism is the soulful embracing of the physical that goes with nature based religion. Questions of simplicity and complexity do not look the same from a Pagan perspective.

Nature is complex and often gloriously inefficient – evolution wanders forward, and while the longstanding form of the shark may seem graceful and enduring, if they stop swimming about, they drown. Pandas. Everything about pandas demonstrates how evolution can and will take bizarre and complicated routes. Then there’s the issues of food chains and eco systems – subtle and complex webs of interdependence. Where there is life, there’s complexity.

We humans have an observable appetite for it. Our urges to create, to play, to invent and imagine demonstrate that simplicity doesn’t come naturally to us. It has to be imagined, taught, created through discipline and given value. I think many ills can be traced back to this – people forced to live narrow, boring, predictable, grinding lives tend to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol just to give existence some breadth and depth.

Many years ago, I minored in psychology, and became aware of the relationship between complexity and child development. Children need environments that stimulate their senses, but don’t overload them. Sound, touch, smell, sight – whatever is available to you needs something to chew on in early childhood to develop as a human. The same is also true of baby rats, and no doubt all other mammals too. We are not designed for bland or sterile environments but for spaces vibrant with life, possibility, danger and wonder.

As Pagans we know that if you spend time in nature, there’s a lot going on in terms of movement, sound and colour in most parts of the world. A still, silent environment is dead, and probably human. And at the other extreme, the maddeningly over-stimulating environment is also human, because we don’t know when to stop. Rush hour traffic, multi-screen leisure time, noise and light pollution – we’ve become rather adept at creating forms of complexity that make us sick.

We need complexity and stimulation, we suffer when faced with either too little, or too much. The question, as always, is one of balance. We need the kind of complex things to think about and interact with that uplift us – be that the glorious chaos of wild places, a chess game or an opera. Complexity is life, and life is complex. Given any chance to question what we’re doing and I think most of us know what’s too much. We develop skills to tune out, to not see or hear so as to avoid information overloads. The answer is not to keep doing that, but to do something better where we can.


Repeating life lessons

One of the concepts that comes up in various spiritual practices is that the lessons we don’t learn we have to keep facing – perhaps over lifetimes, but quite possibly again and again in this one. If I keep attracting a certain kind of person to me, I should look at what I need to learn from the patterns of interaction to free myself from it. I’ve come to the conclusion this is both true and useful, and wrong and misleading in about equal measure.

Many of us will deal with hundreds, if not thousands of people during the course of our lives. People, is has to be said, are not wholly original. There are and have been billions of us, being standout is difficult. And so, of course, inevitably, we run into the same patterns of behaviour, the same odd dysfunctions and weird habits of relationship. I, to take one of many possible examples, keep running into people who find me excessive and too difficult. It’s something I’ve been hurt by repeatedly.

Of course in the grand scheme of things I run into dozens of people who say nothing at all about my being too intense – they don’t notice, or don’t care, or don’t feel moved to mention it, or maybe on some rare occasions, even turn out to like it. Because I’m paying attention to the pattern of people who find me excessive, that’s the pattern I see. If I focus on the pattern of people who have used me, or the people who betrayed my trust, or the people who weren’t who I thought they were, I could make those patterns centre stage instead.

I expect everyone has the same sorts of lists, of people who let them down, or did the thing that really hurt, whatever it was. Stories become prominent shapes in our lives when we notice them and pay attention, and the stories that have hurt us are especially good at getting noticed.

There’s nothing cosmic going on here. The universe is not setting this up to teach me lessons, because it doesn’t need to. There are enough people as a percentage of the population who fear emotional intensity, that I am bound to run into one every few years.

It’s the patterns we don’t deal with that cause the problems. If you are the sort of person who can see a narcissist coming from half a mile away, narcissists will not give you much trouble. If you’re quick to drop users, if you aren’t open to emotional blackmail, and so on and so forth, you will push these people away fast, without even noticing perhaps. They’ll see you aren’t good to latch onto.

So when we ‘learn our lesson’ and the universe stops sending us that lesson, in fact no such thing is happening. We’ll say ‘Sorry, I won’t do that’ the first time a thing comes up and the user will move on and we won’t necessarily see what we avoided. The ‘lessons’ are still there, we’re just holding a different, and better relationship with them.

The trouble with the idea that the universe is sending us lessons, is how responsible it makes us. If you have a run on sexually abusive people, that’s utterly shit luck, and not because you are somehow responsible for attracting them. Abusers exist, they have to show up somewhere. Nothing is directing them to a specific person to teach them lessons, and if we can all learn to take such things a bit less personally, we can be a lot kinder to ourselves and to each other.