Monday, February 28, 2005

The Revisionist Question

I would like to thank everyone who's shown such support over the past few days, and especially those who've shared their thoughts and feelings, posted comments, written their own articles, here, at the Inclusive Church forum, and in many other places where people are coming together.

I went to Calvary Episcopal Church yesterday morning, and was very grateful to be welcomed by a cheerful group of folk who are taking things in their stride with quiet courage and great good humour. Everybody was interested in finding out about my work, interests, reasons for moving to Pittsburgh (and of course, my accent!), and in describing the neighbourhoods where they work, what motivates them, and reasons why they like the community at Calvary.

Local terminology: the Episcopalians who think we should evolve with the rest of civilisation are referred to as "Revisionists". Like "Christian" and "Protestant", this originated as a term of abuse from other communities, and now arouses some mirth and popularity amonst those so named. Broadly speaking, "Revisionist" is something of a compliment to people who believe, for example, that whether or not you find evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq should affect your a priori assumption of whether such weapons are there or not.

There is also a very good bookshop at Calvary - lots of works from the Church Fathers to the present day, much that goes before, and many broader topics covered. So all in all, I was lucky - I found a beacon of light when I badly needed one, went looking for companions and found some. Not all have fared so well over recent days - there are a few of us talking on a forum at the Inclusive Church network and many are feeling very much alone, on both sides of the geographical divide-and-conquer split that our Primates are trying to impose upon us. Please do pray for guidance for us, and please please please, if you're unhappy about the category in which you've beeen lumped then come out and say so. I don't know if there should be a more formal way of doing this, whether a petition or a day of prayer needs to be organized, but somehow we need to make the message ring loud and clear that we are still in communion with one another and we mean to remain so.

In terms of how we should make our voices heard - I do have one strong suggestion, that I raised in my posting the other day (The Anglican Schism), and though I was clearly ranting in anger on that day, there is some sense in the proposal which I will expand more clearly here.

One of the problems, as I see it, is that the cartoon conversation too often goes:
Conservative: Leviticus 18:22 says being gay is bad.
Liberal: Well, it's not necessarily that simple.
Conservative: Yes it is. I just believe the Bible and it's perfectly clear.
Liberal: Well, as I said it's really not that ... I mean, you should really consider ... oh dear oh dear, this is awful ...

I want to take this conversation one simple step further by asking what else should be considered in this debate.

The Revisionist Question

The Bible says that some things are bad. These include
1. Trimming your beard. (Lev. 19:27)
2. Two men sleeping together. (Lev. 18:22)
3. Failing to care for those in need. (Matt. 26:40)
4. Killing other people. (Ex. 20:13)

Most Christians agree that nobody should be thrown out of the church for trimming their beard. Most Christians also believe that it's vital to care for those in need. Yet both of these are commandments in scripture. On what basis are these commandments distinguished?

For a Revisionist, this is an easy question. They are distinguished by basic moral differences. You can draw inspiration for such moral distinctions from many philosopihical and religious works - many of which are really formalisations of experience and common sense. If you suddenly see one guy about to kill someone and another guy about to trim his beard, you don't need any books to tell you which one you should try to prevent.

If your only basis is scripture, then you deplore the idea of picking and choosing between parts of scripture, and you deplore the idea of anyone saying that some parts of scripture are more important than others. After all, such a person is just basing their judgement of importance upon intuition, reason, the morality of the times, and all of those human things that are fallible compared to the Word of God. So how do you proceed?

In practice, I know that many people who call themselves fundamentalists have no problem with beard-trimming. To find a regime that really claimed that beard-trimming is a crime because scripture says it's a crime, you have to look to someone like the Taleban. And I've met many good fundamentalists who are nothing like the Taleban. So what's the answer? If the only allowable input is from scripture, and you have to follow the whole of scripture, how do you tell the moral difference between killing someone and trimming your beard?

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Anglican Schism

The Anglican Church, some 450 years after the Elizabethan Settlement, looks like it's finally splitting because in the chapter before it condemns trimming ones beard, the book of Leviticus also says that "You must not lie with a man as with a woman". I'm not sure whether this clear commandment is a ban on lesbians as well - it would seem strange for God to mean that only one form of homosexuality is a sin, and nowadays we do tend to believe that things said about "men" in ancient books should really apply to people as a whole. But then, we are not to interpret the Bible in a modern context just to suit our liberal whims. Clearly God did not mean to outlaw lesbian relationships at the same time or he would have said so.

True to form on this tragic day, the "News" section of the Church of England's official website carried the momentous headline "Church Commissioners in discussions to sell residential properties". It's very moving, especially if you grew up in a Church of England residential property.

Of course, the Church is not splitting and nobody's being asked to leave. Not yet anyway. It's all very much more subtle and complex than that, and the press simplifying things just shows that they really don't understand the terribly poised niceties of the situation. What's happened is that the American and Canadian branches of the Anglican Church (the American branch, like the Scottish, is called Episcopalian to avoid any lack-of-independence stigma) have been asked to voluntarily withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council, one of the four Anglican "instruments of unity" (the other three being the organ, the piano, and the guitar). They are allowed to voluntarily rejoin sometime around the next Lambeth Conference in 2008 if everybody agrees that we're all suitably wretched sinners and repents. This may not sound very newsworthy to the rest of the world, but let me assure you that George Bush invading your country is comparatively mild compared to the wrath the Anglican Church must be feeling to not invite you to a committee meeting.

For those who don't normally follow my sense of the cynical (not that I'm likely to have acquired any readers who don't know me personally), I'm a lot angrier than I normally am, and you only have to look at the spineless peace of crap that the Anglican Church has released to see why. (For the majority who have better things to do than to go looking for this, it's here.)

There is some kindly and gracious stuff that reminds us of the pastoral Jesus at his Victorian Christmas Carol best, such as the following:

"Section 6. The victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us. We assure homosexual people that they are children of God, loved and valued by him, and deserving of the best we can give of pastoral care and friendship (vii)."

Skip the crucial sections listing the committees and working parties the Archbishop of Canterbury is going to convene to get us out of this crisis, the dates they are going to report back, the process of election and confirmation of the Church hierarchy, etc. etc., and you find the following:

"Section 18. In the meantime, we ask our fellow primates to use their best influence to persuade their brothers and sisters to exercise a moratorium on public Rites of Blessing for Same-sex unions and on the consecration of any bishop living in a sexual relationship outside Christian marriage."

We get the picture loud and clear. The Church will withold God's blessing from you, and then give you all the bedside manner pastoral care you could possibly need to get over this slap in the face. And by the way, treating any human being with diminishment is anathema.

There are times in the past when I've been quite proud of the compromise capability of the Anglican ideal. Thanks largely to the Elizabethan Settlement, for centuries during which countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Scotland, and Ireland suffered large-scale religious conflicts, England remained a country in which differences of religion were not a justification for killing someone. But in the modern world we have backed ourselves into a corner in which compromise isn't saving lives, it's forsaking your belief in a fully loving God. What happens is that the fundamentalist wing of the Church screams loudly about what it will and won't put up with, and the rest of the Church has to put up or shut up in case the fundamentalists walk out.

The solution proposed is that the Americans and Canadians have to go to their room and think about it for three years, after which they had better come downstairs and say that they're very sorry. The Church has become one of those frightening family reunions where there is some gun-toting lunatic of an Uncle who keeps making sexist, racist and violently threatening remarks about anyone who doesn't agree with his entire agenda. Then one of the children who doesn't realise the subtlety and complexity of the situation commits the abhorrent sin - he contradicts the gun-toting Uncle and suggests that he be a bit more reasonable and get with the picture. All hell breaks loose, and of course it's the child's fault. "Little Timmy, don't you realise that you have really upset gun-toting Uncle Nutcase and if you don't let him yell at your friends and throw them out of the house then the family may not be able to stick together. I know, Timmy, it's very sad that your friends can't come here any more without being threatened and abused, but let's not worry about that right now, please please please say you're sorry to Uncle Nutcase or Grandma will be terribly terribly upset." You grit your teeth and play along with the farce, because you too bow to the subtleties of the situation, but for the sake of your kid's sanity and protection you'll find just about any excuse to go to your partner's family instead next time Christmas rolls around.

A very biased cartoon, of course, but then I am quite fed up with reading about the poor Nigerians as the injured party, the backward Third Worlders who can't be expected to understand basic human dignity. Why doesn't the Church stands up for the Nigerian homosexuals? And don't go and tell me that there aren't any because it's not culturally acceptable in Nigeria. If it's culturally unacceptable then you can bet your life that Nigerian homosexuals exist and are just the kind of marginalised people who Jesus came for.

Just is case you were in any doubt as to who is in the majority here, you can turn to the following:

"Section 12. We as a body continue to address the situations which have arisen in North America with the utmost seriousness. Whilst there remains a very real question about whether the North American churches are willing to accept the same teaching on matters of sexual morality as is generally accepted elsewhere in the Communion, the underlying reality of our communion in God the Holy Trinity is obscured, and the effectiveness of our common mission severely hindered."

The rest of the Church clearly accepts a unified collection of teachings on sexual morality, which presumably includes the outlawing of homosexuality. If you're an Anglican from anywhere else in the world, you accept that homosexuality is a sin and you're very upset by your wayward North American cousins.

This is utter rubbish, and is a typically lame Anglican trick to silence the progressives because you can't silence the fundamentalists but you must have unity somehow. In the next few months we will hear about many North American churches who want to split from their diocese and demand to be overseen by a Bishop from somewhere else. These conservative churches will have no compunction at all about splitting from their local Anglican communities because they're just "doing the right thing". On the other hand, the liberal Anglicans in the Church of England and elsewhere will meekly stand by and accept the category in which Section 12 places them, because they don't want to upset church unity or cause pain for their poor Bishops or dear Dr Rowan Williams who is doing the best he can in very difficult circumstances. This is all part of the fundamentalist plan - keep the American conservatives loud (not difficult), keep the English liberals quiet (again, not difficult because they're so terribly nice and will just go on saving souls with cups of tea for all eternity), and the prediction that gun-toting Uncle Nutcase was in the right and Little Timmy was out of line will come beautifully true.

Dr Williams, you have failed us. Yet again, the Church has marginalised the mainstream by pandering to the extremists, to the extent that mainstream people with true Christian values are now firmly outside of a shrinking church. No wonder that of your remaining flock, the intolerant group is in the majority. They've been allowed to dictate the "beliefs" of the church for years, not by being persuasive, not by appealing to Christian values, not even by presenting a proper analysis of the Bible as a whole, but just by being loud and threatening. Every public discussion on this topic I've read has the same pattern. About 1 out of 4 people says "I'm glad, it's about time the Church stood up for God's incontrovertible Law as expressed by the Bible, gays are wrong and will be punished", and about 3 out of 4 people write in to say "Are these people meant to be loving? I'm glad I'm not a Christian, they sound like a horrible lot."

This situation is not delicate. It is not complex. The only delicate complexity is the handwringing and headshaking that the Anglican councils are going through in their desperate attempt to fudge the simplicity of the issues and pretend that we're all on the same side really.

Let me put it very simply. My own point of view, of course. There are those in the Church who believe that civilization has moved, and moved largely in the right direction. They condemn slavery. They abhor genocide. They don't believe that polygamy is a good thing. They don't believe that's it's a sin to eat shellfish or to strike a match on the sabbath. They don't believe that women and everything they touch should be treated as unclean for 7 days during their period. And they are honest enough to accept that these beliefs are in some conflict with a literal interpretation of the Bible, that many parts of the Bible are in contradiction with one another, and that a Law governing nomadic tribes attacking Canaan from the East in the 2nd millenium BC has to evolve.

On the other hand, there are those in the Church who claim that they haven't budged and inch from what the Bible commands. They still condemn slavery, abhor genocide, don't condone polygamy, eat shellfish, strike matches on the sabbath, don't believe that menstruation is unclean, etc. etc. And by the way, they hate gays. And they hate the idea of Christians neglecting the verse in Leviticus that says that being gay is wrong. In fact, they hate the idea of Christians suggesting that any part of the Bible may not apply to the present day. Except for the vast majority of the Bible that they have not read, choose to ignore, or claim is "only ceremonial". Of course, it's not for mankind to choose which parts of the Bible to follow: however, this group does claim a monopoly on choosing which parts of the Old Testament count as "ceremonial".

You cannot live strictly according to Biblical law without breaking the law of every civilised country. You cannot today insist that if a woman's husband dies, she passes by right to his brother. The nearest recent attempt to live strictly and only by scripture was the Taleban regime in Afghanistan - remember that many Muslims treat the pre-Koranic scriptures with as much if not more respect than Christian fundamentalists treat their "Old Testament". Suppression of women, public executions, closure of schools that teach anything beyond scripture, destruction of priceless cultural monuments (a.k.a. graven images). These are not only sanctioned, but demanded by the Bible.

I propose the following action, quite seriously. The document released by the Church today requests of the Americans and Canadians "that both churches respond through their relevant constitutional bodies to the questions specifically addressed to them in the Windsor Report as they consider their place within the Anglican Communion." During the same period, I want the self-proclaimed Biblical party to respond through their constituational bodies to the questions I'm specifically addressing to them. How is it that "following the Bible" means following the one verse about homosexuality and ignoring the vast swaths about polygamy? Or about any number of other issues? And don't come back and say "it's the Bible, you can't pick and choose" unless you really mean that you're going to stop picking and choosing, in which case the rest of the world will have to send in UN peacekeepers to prevent mass rape and even genocide. I demand an explanation, not a repeat of the self-righteous denial.

One silver lining - I am at least in the part of the world that's being outlawed for its outreach. I might even go to Church on Sunday.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Science and Global Warming

Global warming has been in the news again in recent days, and once again highlights the disconnect between science and decision making in the Western world. Doubtless this disconnection is not localized to the Western world, but since the West claims a proud tradition of behaving with enlightened objectivity rather than superstitious dogma, we have a particular duty to examine this tradition and see how measures of proof and demonstration are used by our leaders and ourselves to make decisions.

The new evidence for global warming was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to this BBC report. The researchers collected some 7 million oceanic temperature and salinity readings, and concluded not only that temperatures have risen (a debate that is largely over except for people who are sure that the Bible is the only trustworthy source of data for 21st century ocean temperatures), but that among the hypotheses used to account for the changes, two simulations that predicted the warming effects of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit the nail on the head.

My first compliant about the way this research has been reported is that I have been unable to find a copy of the AAAS paper itself. None of the news reports have contained a link to the article, though they contain copious quotes from the authors and other interested parties. This is typical of the science is presented to the public nowadays. Far from the picture of the Renaissance or enlightenment scholar eager to read about and verify each new scientific breakthrough, science is fed to us with a distance and authority reminiscent of medieval theology. Experts can explain everything about the Universe, but you won't understand and you might as well not try, so here, my dear, is the edited version. An example (which I picked because it is typical of fiarly good scientific journalism, not because it is the worst of the bunch) is this article from the San Francisco Chronicle. (An alternative published a few months ago is this study which was prepared for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and certainly does not patronise the reader.)

Other major trends include the increasing reliance of new science upon empiricist rather than rationalist data. Many sceptics would point their finger and say "aha - you can prove anything with computer modelling", but I'm not so worried about this. Philosophically, this is exactly like doing millions of calculations with a pen a paper, and it's a lot easier for an independent reviewer to check someone's algorithm written down in a programming language than it is to check pages and pages of human calculations. Putting the computer in the loop doesn't take the human intellect out, it just speeds things up. It's not the computers that make this sort of research inaccessible. It's the 7 million records of ocean temperature and salinity. That sort of experiment can simply not be reproduced without enormous resources, and of course, even if data was different six months later you could argue that that's because it is - well - just six months later.

This is very very different from the rationalist approach to science that produced such enormous strides through the gravitational and mechanical laws of Isaac Newton, the electromagnetic equations of James Clarke Maxwell, and the special and general theories of relativity of Albert Einstein. Einstein's special theory is a wonderful example - it relies on only two empirical observations or postulates, the first that the velocity of light is constant, and the second that you always get the same results whatever coordinate system you use. Now that's proper science for you ... at least, if one goes in for nostalgia.

Generally I don't. I believe that we're entering a new and exciting epoch of science, and indeed, it is upon us. From climatology to evidence-based medicine to corpus linguistics, empirical methods are shedding new light not only upon their own subject matter, but upon the way our minds work. Descartes' famous "I think, therefore I am" is increasingly understood as only part of the story. Baby humans are apparently not born with the knowledge that if a ball is taken behind a screen and emerges a different colour then there is something funny going on - the register of surprise at this experiment is something that gradually develops. The laws of physics may be true, but they are also learned. Rationalist science may rely on pure intelligence: empiricist science at some level relies also on the tangled web of know-how that is often colloquially called "common sense."

This leads to my main point, deep anger, and deeper fear for the world. Science is changing. Is the interpretation of science keeping pace? Not at all. If anything it is going backwards, and this is bad bad news for us all. Far from responding to scientific results with scientific policies, our leaders are increasingly hiding behind bad science and bad ethics to do whatever they think will please their electors and flatter their images in history. And here's the problem. Whereas rationalist results often rely almost entirely on deduction, empiricist results rely crucially on induction - the acceptance that the future is likely to follow the same trends as the past. But there is always grounds for reasonable doubt with induction - life has its generalisations and its exceptions, and politics has become expert at emphasising one or the other and obscuring the science behind the rhetoric.

Take a simple example - many conservative politicians talk of marijuana as a "gateway drug", citing the fact that (for example) most heroin addicts have previously tried marijuana. And alcohol. And kissing. In deductive logic, the assumption that "A implies B and so B implies A" is known to be a fallacy. In inductive reasoning, people get away with it all the time. This is used, sometimes quite deliberately, to stifle debate into questions like "how come opiates such as morphene are allowed in medicine when they are known to be deadly, and marijuana is completely outlawed." (My reason for citing this example is not to make a case for medical marijuana in this instance, but to point out how unscientific are the decisions made on our behalf and the rhetoric used to uphold them.)

The deadliest example is the contrast between the politics of profit and the poilitics of fear. If a man carrying a gun and wearing a turban poisons your water once, it's a dastardly act of terrorism, but don't worry, our leaders are on to him already and are going to attack his country before he attacks ours. If, on the other hand, a man wearing a suit and tie explains to a man wearing a wig and gown that a man wearing a blue overall was just doing his job, and the EPA had issued a license, was monitoring all the activities, and they were all within "safe" levels, then everything is perfectly legal. Kicking up a fuss in this instance is deeply frowned upon - frivolous lawsuits cost jobs, so don't rock the boat.

An astonishingly bad example was the attitude of the UK government to the growing threat of BSE or "Mad Cow Disease" in the early and mid 1990's. In many reports and parliamentary sessions, the mantra was quoted again and again that there was no proven link between feeding dead sick sheep to cows and any human suffering. A typical political example of demanding
a deductive proof, because there was money riding on the issue in the short term. Of course, there was orders of magnitude more money riding on the issue in the medium to long term, but that would demand that our leaders were prepared to reason empirically, arguing that if something sounds stupid and negligent, it probably is. Feeding sick sheep to vegetarian cows and then eating the cows was always a gross violation of common sense, and a large proportion of the British public ("those emotional unscientific bleeding-heart liberals at it again ...") were outspokenly aware of this.

Most recently, the contrast between fear-politics and profit-politics is heartbreakingly obvious, but it needs to be said again and again. Out-of-date reports, a photograph of an Iraqi with a briefcase in Nigeria, and the fact that Iraqi officials and Islamists had potentially been within 20 miles of Prague at the same time, was enough for any reasonable person to be beyond doubt - Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction and was ready to push the button any minute now. And Blair and Bush could simply not afford to risk their people's safety any longer.

Faced, on the other hand, with 7 million observations of ocean temperature and salinity, we have the following call to arms.
"Our position has been the same for a long time," said Bill Holbrook, spokesman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "The science of global climate change is uncertain."

I suspect that this phrase may become famous. It's true, of course. Empirical science is uncertain. To know that a virus causes sickness, you do not predict with certainty which members of the population will fall sick and which will stay healthy. You see enough sickness and you take action.

According to the cartoon we were taught in school, the middle-ages ended when Science broke free from the Church and spoke with its own voice. The challenge today is far greater, because the earth is at stake. Science must break free of the web of ego, profit ignorance and speak with its own voice, so clearly that people are compelled to believe and change their ways. Science will triumph, or we are doomed to great suffering and possibly extinction. And no, I cannot prove this.