Belief and the unbelievable

Brace yourself with the grace of ease, I know this world ain’t what it seems… You’re unbelievable. (EMF)

It’s interesting to consider what is now unbelievable, and what used to be. It would at one time been perfectly reasonable for instance, to believe that the world is flat – now we no longer think that is reasonable.

Similarly it was once very common to believe in a literal six day creation story, these days that is only thought to be reasonable if one belongs to a particular strand of a religious subculture.

Without making any sort of value judgement on the relative strengths or weaknesses of either of these beliefs, what I want to suggest is that there is a power dynamic at play in what is, and what is not, believable.

In both of the examples above, the power dynamic stems from the rule of the church over society. As modernity progressed the norms of belief which had solidified the authority of the teaching of the church as sovereign were gradually eroded – leaving us in a position where now the church is (relative to its previous position) marginalised. Please note that in talking about this I’ve genuinely no interest in trying to perpetuate the idea of the persecution of the church in the West or any of that stuff, I’m simply talking about the way that belief has developed.

What I am keen to do is reflect the way that what is believable and unbelievable changes according to who has particular interests to protect, and what they want to perpetuate. With the church as sovereign then certain Biblicist notions meant that particular things were unbelievable. With the modern ‘secularlist’ upsurge many of these ideas have become unbelievable.

For instance the idea that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’, or that women by nature cannot hold positions of power, or that the poor are feckless – beliefs aimed squarely at marginalising sectors of society to solidify the power of another sector.

What this means is that by reflecting on the way the power dynamics affect ‘believability’ we can turn an eye inward and ask what things are unbelievable today.

A good example is the very apparent battle over belief concerning who is to blame for the economic problems we currently face – various groups are lobbying hard to make it impossible to believe that they are responsible.

Another example of that could be the overturn or radical overhaul of the Western capitalist system – to ponder such an eventuality is ridiculous… isn’t it? It’s unbelievable that things could change to such an extent, right?

We need to ask, who currently has particular reason to ensure that certain things are unbelievable?

And what would happen then, if we all began to believe the unbelievable?

Read post one in this series – Belief and the believed.

Belief and the believed

“If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”

In JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ the fairy Tinkerbell was saved from death by belief, specifically, belief in fairies. Barrie uses the motif of mythology, specifically mythical creatures, to suggest that in some cases, belief actually CAUSES existence.

But is that true of things other than fairies? I want to suggest that it is.

Where this starts is with ideas – because it is ideas that rule our imagination. But an idea has no power until it is believed.

And like Tinkerbell, who needed lots of belief to make her well again, the more belief there is, the more power an idea has.

Let’s take money as an example. Money is only really an idea, we are long past the time when money actually meant something, if it ever really did. What gives money its power is not what it is actually worth, but what we believe it is worth. If we all stopped believing that money had worth, it would actually be worthless.

We could talk similarly about government, government has power because we believe it has power, and crucially some of us who believe that have decided to learn how to shoot people who don’t believe it.

Belief you see, must be protected, because the consequences of loss of belief are dire indeed.

This has implications for an awful lot of things – in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’ we see a clear explanation of this issue, the god who is the main character of the book has suffered a great loss of belief, and as a result has shrunk away to almost total powerlessness.

Pratchett is actually very good on this stuff, he goes over much of the same kind of material in ‘Hogfather’ too, which also makes a good Christmas movie if you are interested.

So when it comes to it, we need to recognise that while it would appear that the power lies with the believed, actually it lies with the believer, and if unbelief could be manifested on a large enough scale, the power of the believed could be broken altogether.

This is based of course on the relativistic idea that ideas don’t exist objectively. That is something which I am not going to go into now, as it is an idea that I personally half believe (I think some things are objectively real, and others aren’t).

But of course on a deeper level you could question the entirety of existence in this way, do we actually exist in an objective sense, or is this all just an idea that we believe strongly enough to make it real?

Personally I’m not so concerned about that, but I am deeply interested in the idea that ideas which hold power over us can lose their power once they lose their belief, as it demonstrates our collective ability to make genuine and complex changes in the world around us, by making simple changes in what we believe.

Activism and protest

I have been troubled for some time by the kind of mass protests which have dominated the anticapitalism news agenda. In and of themselves they seem to have become an instrument of consumption, and not a representation of a genuine desire to change.

I have pondered whether this reflects a latent lethargy in me, which just can’t be bothered to be part of mass protest movements, and would rather feel self righteous about my own small scale attempts at radical living.

But this quote from Adbusters this morning has helped me see again what it is I object to about big protest rallies (emphasis added):

Activists around the world take note: massive 1960s style protests now only reinforce the existing order – without these spectacles of resistance, capitalism would lose its dynamic spark.

So this November let’s try a new tactical beginning: A week of myriad little local actions flaring up spontaneously all over the world. We attack capitalism – not at officially sanctioned protests – but like a swarm of bees attacking a wounded beast: with a billion incessant stings. Day after day, week after week, we keep escalating our actions until the cost of doing business as usual becomes impossible to bear … and the bloodied beast finally falls to its knees.

Good post about royalty and land reform

I really like the work Maddy Harland, editor of Permaculture magazine does. She is wiser than me, and doesnt shoot her mouth off at the drop of a hat, so when she writes something, it’s usually well worth reading.

She just posted up this article about Royalty, nature, and land reform – three things I hold (inevitably) quite strong opinions on. I am not a fan of the idea of the royal family, although I have nothing against them personally – I dont want to kill them or anything. Anyhow, all that nonsense aside, Maddy puts an interesting perspective on them, one born of a bit more reflection than I am known for giving…

Land reform in this current society is indeed one of THE big questions, and is only likely to become more of an issue as time goes on.  I have not read HRH’s book – ‘Harmony’, nor in all honesty am I likely to, but I’m glad Maddy has, and I trust her to comment upon it with sagacity, worth checking out.

the prophetic irritant, a case study of a new monastic in society

A bit of a long winded title perhaps, but a prophetic irritant seems to describe pretty well the person of Fr Martin Newell, a Catholic priest, and member of the Catholic worker movement.

Uncontent to sit idly by as weapons of mass destruction are developed and built here in the UK, Martin Newell and his friends have – time and time again – demonstrated another way through direct action.

Always non violent, always prophetic, and always at some cost to himself, Fr Martin has a history of direct action demonstrations at military installations. The latest is reported here – he was arrested at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, where he and two fellow peace campaigners ‘opened the base for disarmament’.

I am full of respect for the commitment shown by this peaceful man, after all, imagine the threat he faces each time gets sent to jail: ‘so you’re a priest eh, I wonder what you’ve been put away for…’

But because it is part of his vocation, he continues to campaign in this way.

I interviewed Martin for my book, excerpts of which I have been publishing here on the blog, and he proved to be an insightful and wise man. But more than anything he stands in a long line of prophetic irritants, one of whom was Dorothy Day and another of whom was Peter Maurin, the founders of the Catholic Worker movement. They, and the movement they founded demonstrate an aspect of new monasticism first modelled by the fore runners of classical monasticism, political dissidents like John The Baptiser and other old school prophets.

We know where politics got John, fortunately for all of us, Martin is unlikely to end up decapitated, but we could all do with heeding his warnings, and ultimately following his lead.

Is our only hope voter apathy?

Keith at ‘Pinch’ makes a well thought out set of arguments about why he will not be voting, saying the system is:

1. Unjust.
2. Creates political apathy
3. Creates losers.
4. Disenfranchises the majority.
5. Allows people to abdicate responsibility for the decision made in their communities.
6. Selects people to fund and organise violence against me and people in distant countries.

check it out – if it’s not already too late…

A plea for the Christian non vote – why you could choose not to vote this week

Who should I vote for? Who should Christians vote for?Are any of the parties any good?

With the general election looming closer and closer, and the prospect of some significant change at Westminster, there is a lot of talk around about who to vote for. In this post, I want to advocate the non vote.

In Christian circles I hear lots of people saying they want to vote for the candidate or party who best represent what they regard as ‘Christian principles’ in an attempt to reclaim a ‘Christian focus at the heart of government’.

But in my opinion this notion of Christianity at the heart of democratic politics makes no real sense. This is not easy for me to say, my background is one of committed democratic socialism, redistribution and so on. But in recent times I’ve come to see democracy as a fraud, and the underlying policies of military and economic aggression as profoundly anti-christian.

To tackle democracy as a concept first, I think its easiest to explain it thus: we dont accept dictatorship – the rule of one individual, nor yet oligarchy, the rule of the elite, instead we call for democracy – the rule of the people, which in our case we administer by means of a majority vote. This means on a small scale that if ten people vote, and six of them choose one way, and four another, then the four who are overruled have to give in to the six. The greater the numbers, the more people who have to submit to the majority opinion. I dont see this as much better than rule by an elite to be honest, hypothetically if those six people are weak minded or easily impressed, and the four saw through the spin, why should they submit to being ruled by the majority decision?

My other discomfort with democracy is that I feel its a veneer, as Douglas Adams (I think) described it – it’s there to make you think somebody is in control. What he meant is that it gives us an illusion of power, wheras in reality the power in our country is exerted by economic forces. Yes the governments can tinker with things which are relatively important, but they must work within a closely defined set of parameters.

Governments dont really have the power to go against the economic power houses which have become totally entrenched in society. Its these same economic powers, institutions and corporations which are often richer than many governments, which maintain the levels of global inequality through the delights of the capitalist system.

Voting then gives us an illusion of control over a system which at its core is not controllable by one government, unless its some kind of militaristic dictatorship (not a good option).

So to vote then is to legitimise the system, and to allow it to function in your name. The non vote is a vote against the sham of democracy. I apologise to those who feel democracy is hard won, whether by suffragettes or soldiers, sadly I dont think that their great sacrifice means that we should legitimise this flawed system.

On the other point, that of the party policies. There are no parties which are against the killing of others under certain circumstances. I recognise that I am very much in a minority as a pacifist, but in my opinion to vote is to legitimise the kind of wars which are waged around the globe, and that means to have blood on ones hands.

I have no interest in having blood on my hands, I dont think its loving to go to war, and I dont want to support any government that will do so.

My final point is on this idea of a ‘Christian society’. I think this is a false utopia. The church shoud not be at the centre, but at the margins, not being the establishment voice but the outsider voice. Yes we should be working to help the poor and dispossessed, but our voice is not strengthened by wealth, power and privelige. I dont think we should be trying to recreate a ‘golden age’ (if one ever existed) Christian society, but instead re-finding our place among the poor and outcast, the refugee and outsider, and making our home there.

So that’s a long way of saying that I wont be voting on Thursday, I may go and spoil my ballot, but I may not even do that, for that in its way is to legitimise the system. I dont expect more than about one or two readers of this blog to agree with me, but in case you are wondering who to vote for this week, I urge you to consider not voting at all.

By the way, apologies for the lack of posts recently, I have one wrist in plaster, which is making typing very hard indeed.  Ho hum.