Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Uncontested Word: Why do Some Historians Treat Religious Texts as Sacred?

Right, time to start blogging more regularly, and I shall begin right here!

There are a great many historians who practice religions of all flavours. Some historians jump headlong into the history of their particular faith, blending it with apologetics and philosophy. Others simply ignore their religious predilections and concentrate on other areas of history, sealing their faith in a mental box with a sign huge on the lid reading ‘do not enter while studying’. I am sure this arrangement or something similar to it is found throughout all walks of academic life, but I find it particularly puzzling when I find it amongst historians. I know of many good historians who take their collection of fables as absolutely true; it is one of the most fascinating and puzzling examples of cognitive dissonance I know of. After all, a historian is, by definition, someone who is deeply sceptical about old texts and artefacts. It is a historian’s job to dust off manuscripts, wade through archives, dig things out of dark corners and not believe a word of it (unless there is some good supporting evidence, of course). Even when a historian does believe a word of it, he tempers this with a deep analysis of the text or object at hand, stripping it down in order to work out what the narrative really is, as opposed to what the text or object claims it is. In short, we historians are deeply sceptical pedants: each and every one of us. So why does pedantry, suspicion and obsessive checking, cross-checking, double checking and rechecking disappear so often in the face of a religious text? Here, I’ll take a lightly meandering journey through the peripheries of the philosophy of history in order to find out if there is any validity in accepting a religious text as good source of history.

In history, there are two main types of document: primary and secondary. A primary document is one that is from the time and place in which the events took place. Some primary documents, like birth certificates, court records and tax details, are as close to certain as we can ever get. Others, like records of the First Crusade, have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Very often the originals are lost and our knowledge that these documents existed at the time they describe has to be deduced from other period documents that mention or quote from them. Worse still, these non-original primary sources are very often altered in copying: by mistake, through the inclusion of marginalia and other notes or for political and religious reasons. It is also important to understand what writing was in the period that we are reading. To take the medieval as an example: for most of the medieval, historical writing based its truth not only on real events, but on how they could be fitted with how people thought the world should be. This was, of course, how the ancients, and particularly the bible, said it should be. There are examples of people describing their home town not as they knew it but as Plutarch described it over a thousand years ago in order to fit with convention. Add to this that there was always some message, some element of propaganda to the writing, and add to this that originality was not only rare but actively frowned upon and you can see that even with primary documents, things can get tricky. Hence the historian’s pedantry; we don’t just take documents with a pinch of salt, we order a truckload of salt capable of defrosting a good section of the Antarctic surface and pour it over the texts until we understand every social and cultural nuance contained therein. The problem with religious texts is that, without exception, they aren’t even primary sources.

Religious texts are always secondary sources. They are written after the fact by people who were not there and are writing most commonly through hearsay. These secondary sources are not only contaminated by Chinese whispers, they can also be contaminated by cultural exchange, the need to write in order to fit the times and a million other factors we have no way of knowing about. People pick on the bible all the time (because, frankly, it’s easy) so I’m going to go somewhere else. The Rig Veda was purportedly created sometime between 1700 and 1100 BCE, some scholars pushing some of the hymns as far back as far as 2000 BCE. The problem here is that we don’t have any documents that go back that far. Writing didn’t really get going in India until the 3rd Century BCE and written records of the Vedas that have survived do not appear until much later. As a result, we have no idea how much cultural cross-pollination took place during that time. To assume that none took place and that the hymns remained the same is foolish. Even the most conservative scholar agrees that some revisions to the hymns took place around the 6th Century CE, and this ties curiously with the growth of Persia as a major power and the emergence of the Greek city states. Now there is no certainty that there was any influence by these cultures (apart from the echoing of the Persian Zoroastrian Zend Avestra in parts of the Vedas), but it would be poor practice of me as a historian to assume that no such pollution took place. So why do some people accept these secondary documents without question? Perhaps it’s a subjective thing?

Any postmodernist will tell you, if you should care to risk turning a rock or going in the darkest corners of certain universities to find one, that history is subjective. They will side with Nietzsche and claim that if we cannot pin something down objectively, empirically and positively, then it is fair game. Sources, secondary or primary, are ripe for interpretation pretty much any way you wish. It seems to me that when it comes to religious documents, even the most rigorous of empirical historians can, if they have faith, become a part-time postmodernist and claim that they are free to interpret their religious book their way how they want. But some things in history cannot be interpreted subjectively. When we look at documents, even the most committed postmodern historian will reject the impossible all the time. Cyrus was not suckled by dogs as claimed by Herodotus. St. Patrick did not lead the snakes from Ireland. There was not a dragon on the Isle of Lango as claimed by John Mandeville. Jesus did not rise from the dead. These are, or should be, all in the same category of ‘fantastical and impossible, so probably myth or allegory’. You cannot say ‘well, subjectively, I think there actually was a dragon and Cyrus actually was suckled by dogs’ without being laughed out of academia. The claim that someone rose from the dead cannot be exempt from that, not even if it was written by ten people who claim to be eyewitnesses. In all these cases, a good historian would think, ‘that can’t be true, so what is going on’. Subjectivity cannot rescue religious scripture.

All that remains is the third path. Religious texts are accepted because there are enough people who believe them without question. There are enough people out there who point to them as an object and say ‘I think they mean this’ and others who agree. This intersubjective stance is what philosopher Donald Davidson called ‘triangulation’. It is when two people agree what a third object is. Without such triangulation, Davidson maintained, we could not have propositional attitudes: wants and desires, needs and most importantly, beliefs. All belief are an agreement on what something means and what language is to be used to describe something. It is the most important of the propositional attitudes because the others are, in themselves, based upon beliefs. Religious texts are, to those who believe in them, a powerful object to focus this triangulation of thought upon. When combined with rituals, upbringing and circumstance, they satiate our propositional attitudes, our needs, our desires, our wants, in a way few things outside addiction can (some might argue such beliefs are an addiction). So, perhaps, in much the same way a medical doctor will happily go out for a pint knowing it isn’t medically good for them; a believing historian will partake in their religious texts with the full knowledge of what they are, while ignoring what they are for the sake of their beliefs. To do otherwise would be to break the triangle, move you out of your in-group and change your propositional attitudes entirely. This is not an easy thing to do. The problem with the intersubjective explanation for why historians accept religious texts, however, is that it answers nothing regarding our acceptance of them as good historical sources. No matter how much your in-group shares your beliefs, it does not make them reality. As we have seen, subjecting religious texts to the same kind of rigor as other historical texts weakens them, and saying ‘me and my friends all believe’ is not enough to make them true.

So are religious documents good historical sources? Not really. They fail on an objective level in that they are at best unreliable secondary sources. They fail even when examined by the subjectivity of postmodernism, as they contain things we would otherwise consider impossible and so require special pleading to be accepted. Even at an intersubjective level, religious texts may work as social glue but they fail as historical documents. I, as someone interested in the mentalit√© of the peoples of the past, might find this ‘alternative view of truth’ fascinating, but it doesn’t make it reality. All it does is tells us that there is, and was, a group prepared to accept them and the narratives contained within whatever the results of the scrutiny. It tells us that there are people prepared to accept them no matter what, even if, like historians, they should know better. From a historian’s perspective, all they can really do is tell us something about the societies that created, edited, spread and preserved them and even then, especially then, you need to that truck of salt on standby.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Why I am a Skeptic/Atheist, explained by Nik Kershaw? No really!

I have, for a while, been thinking of submitting a 'Why I am an Atheist' post to PZ Myers, as he seems to like that kind of thing. I would have explained that I have always been an annoying question asker. I would have talked about the time I got in trouble for asking "so you are telling me over 5000 people walked tens of miles to hear a man talk, and only one small child thought to bring a packed lunch" when I was eight years old. I would have mentioned the inconsistencies that flew into my mind every time the Anglican preacher, sorry, priest came to my junior school (this was every Friday). I would have even talked about the dalliance I had with Tarot and fortune telling, soon realising that I was cold reading through observation and did not need the cards to do this. Most importantly, I would have mentioned the time I was down, and tried in vain to describe the assault of woo and faith from all sides; once friends trying to convince me of their faith, leading to the cusp of belief and the path to fundamentalism. It was a period I surrounded myself with bibles and commentaries (which I still have and still read often), a time of my life I keep quite, almost nobody knows, when those telling me what I wanted to hear when I wanted to hear it almost broke through. Thankfully, an internal voice held me back, fought my way into the light of experiential thought and the real world I really live in.

Bizarrely, a much better, much more poetic version of this later tale exists. Today, I was listening to some fabulous cheese from my past. Some describe it as 'guilty pleasures' but I refuse. It was Nik Kershaw's 'Human Racing' album. An album sat firmly in my past thanks to repeat plays by my sister in the 80s. It is a better album than I remember. One song, however struck me. The song is called 'faces', and it explained my moment of near-living-death experience with the religious, perfectly. Here are the lyrics:

They found me lost in space, nowhere to go
With the stakes so high and my resistance so low
They said "follow us, follow us today
We are truth, we are the way."

"young man" they said "your search is through
You can trust in us, we'll look after you
We will be your body, we will be your mind
And we've a face of each and every kind
Yes we've a face of each and every kind"

"one for us and one for you
One for old and one for new
One for rich and one for poor
One for peace and one for war"

"there's no need for you to hear or see
We'll do your thinking for you, if you'll agree
So close your eyes and let yourself unwind
And you can leave the real world behind"

For a moment I was taken in
They were in my body, they were under my skin
Until I heard a voice crying "set me free"
And I realized that it was me
Yes I realized that it was me

Just when you really thing you're going places
They come inside of you with their many faces

One for us and one for you
One for old and one for new
One for rich and one for poor
One for peace and one for war."

These lyrics say it better than I ever could. It is a dark song for a dark moment, but just the same, perfect for what I want to say.

I may yet submit a more detailed 'Why I am an Atheist' to PZ, followed by a personal series of 'Why I am...' consisting of '...Igtheist', '...Skeptic', '...Humanist', '...Secularist' '...Evidentialist', '...Philosopher', and '...Historian'. But for now, here is a taster, courtesy of Nik Kershaw and the 80's I grew up in.

I recomend finding the track online (Spotify or similar. No piracy now!) and enjoy!


Monday, 19 December 2011

That Was the Weekend, That Really Was!

Sometimes, just sometimes, you have a strange couple of days. Those days when life packs into a singularity and bursts out with the energy of a mini Big Bang, creating a point of initiation that you just know will lead to life’s future supernova, heavy elements and chaotic fractal constructions. A couple of days that will be part of what passes through your mind as your life ends, forcing a wry smile while oblivion stares into your eyes, readying itself for your final annihilation. A powerful, all too brief moment in time leaving you numb and dizzy; for me, it has been such a weekend.

On Friday morning, I wake to hear the sad news of the passing of Christopher Hitchens. A man of such stunning intellect and erudition that even his most vocal opponents will feel the loss. After a Hitchslap marathon, I find the recycling of life takes another turn. From a death to a life, and my list of Nieces and Nephews grow one further on the birth of Eden Firth, the new daughter of my wife’s brother, Robin. It has not been long since my own brother, Andrew, added another to the growing list; I’m now at 16. So the tendrils of life and family continue to expand, and in some strange way I feel my own personal connection to the planet grow with each and every one.

By Friday afternoon I had to say goodbye to Dawn for a short time, something I rarely do, and head off back to Sheffield with my oldest brother, David. He and I travelled up with his eldest son, Ethan, newly but gently rotund after discovering our family’s love of food; David tells me he widens out before he shoots upwards; I look forward to my own shoot upwards with longing. We have a pleasant journey up the motorway accompanied by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (original radio series and, in my opinion, the best version). Ethan at 11 years of age already knows all the lines, all the jokes, and is starting to understand the deep philosophical sci-fi comedy genius of Douglas Adams. We arrive around midnight at my mother’s house. My mum isn’t there as she is sunning herself in Spain over Christmas, but my oldest brother Peter, who has travelled up also, meets us; his son, Tom, is asleep in the living room. I rock climb into the readymade bed left by my mother, a bed so tall I for fear my life and experience near altitude sickness as I reach its summit. In the piece I remember what happened on the train from my Flat to my Brothers house for a minute, and I focus on the fuzzy feeling I have in my stomach when I recall my phone flashing with the arrival of a new email. I read it once, twice, three times. Have I done it? Can I have done it? Bloody hell, I have done it!

When I was at school, and ever since, I had two secret dreams and one public one. The public one was to be a rock star, or at least a professional musician. It’s a dream I flirted with for over a decade before the stark realisation that, A. I couldn’t make it without compromise, and I wasn’t prepared to compromise, and, B. the music industry is dying. This made me contemplate the possibility of the other dreams; they were intertwined. I had dreamed quietly from about 8 years of age of becoming a Doctor by getting a PhD, and I dreamed of going to Cambridge University. The email was confirmation that the chance to fulfil both had arrived: the degree committee of the History faculty at the University of Cambridge have recommended me to the Board of Graduate studies. This means (paperwork pending) that I am going to Cambridge to do an MPhil/PhD, in Early Modern History. I called Dawn who whooped for joy. I felt a buzz. I had BLOODY WELL DONE IT. Two and a half years of working my arse off, shutting myself away, spending hours and hours on essays and research had come to fruition. My thirst for each and every bit of work to be graded a first had paid off. I was going to the best University in the world for my subject to get the highest qualification in the world. Wow. What a day.

The next day, it got stranger. Me, my brothers - Peter and David - their sons - Tom and Ethan - two of my sisters sons - Jack and George - and one of my sisters husband’s sons - Jordan - headed to Sheffield S6, Hillsborough Stadium, to watch the mighty(ish) Sheffield Wednesday take on local(ish) rivals Huddersfield. It was the most bizarrely brilliant games I have ever seen. 20 minutes in, Huddersfield had torn Wednesday to pieces- they were 0-2 up and eating us alive. Their striker, Jordan Rhodes, was a knife and our defence was butter. It was humiliating. It was all over. Then, with just about their 2nd shot on goal Wednesday equalised and at that, it was as if Wednesday manager Gary Megson had given the players an enema. Wednesday dominated and the absolute joy of going level at 2-2 was followed, after the break, with 2 more. Wednesday were 4-2 ahead. Ah, but that this was the end. Wednesday tried to close the game down and made a hash of it. Very quickly, Huddersfield drew one back, Rhodes melting the buttery side of our defence once more. It was 4-3 and injury time. As we had very few injuries, we assumed it would soon be over and Wednesday would take the 3 points. Not so. The injury time seemed to stretch out forever. If you were cynical, you might say that the referee, the amusingly named Derek Deadman (seriously!) was waiting for the now on fire Huddersfield to equalise. And equalise they did, in the 7th (count ‘em) minute of injury time, and immediately the whistle was blown. Bugger. One more instance of awful refereeing, but then, Wednesday shouldn’t have let them take over the game. But WHAT a game! WHAT a stunner! They come but once every few seasons, decades even, and I am glad, even honoured, to have been there.

The curry that night was great; well, the company was, not so sure about the Curry. Mine tasted like a bad stew. The next day David, Ethan and I saw relatives (my late Dad’s brother and sister- Uncle Leonard and Auntie Marion- my late Dad’s late brother’s wife- Auntie Christine- and my Nan (on my mum’s side)) and David and I got the distinct impression we’d made a few old ladies (and I suspect an old man) very happy. We made Ethan happy too,as he realised Nans and Aunties tend to do things like give you a hand full of sweets and the odd fiver. I think he likes his northern extended family. We head home, and those connections to the planet, from seeing so much of my family, feel all the stronger. Douglas Adams once claimed we are attached to the place we are born by tendrils of guilt; I think the same is true of family. I miss my Dawny however, and feel great to be back with her on Sunday evening. She’s got me my favourite food and a Bottle of CV Champers to celebrate the news about Cambridge; all in all, one hell of a weekend.

So in a nutshell, in the space of 48 hours an idol dies, I fulfil one of my dreams and make another almost certain, my family grows once more, I see what is probably one of the greatest football matches of all time, and I help make a few old dears very happy.

All I can say to that is: Happy Christmas and a Very Merry New Year!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Folly of Rhetoric (or fighting fire with fire).

Rhetoric is a disease. It is a false reality: the last desperate hope of those who fear what science and learning have brought us. Rhetoric is used where the cracks are, where the arguments decay and the discussions should have ended. Rhetoric is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The world is filled with Rhetoric. Flat-Earthers, Conspiracy Theorists, Creationists, so-called Race Realists, Geocentrists, Climate Change Deniers, Postmodernists, Critics; they are all the same. Rhetoric makes people believe that appealing to words can overturn what we know. Rheotric waves the flag of the literal turn, gets in bed with Derrida and suggests that scientific knowledge is mere opinion. Rhetoric claims that any interpretation- any unqualified interpretation- is a valid as any other. It appeals to emotion and incredulity in a desperate attempt to overturn the universe we observe. They misuse and abuse logical fallacies, fallacies that for the most part should have been consigned to the intellectual grave with the rest of the Scholastic Aristotelian school that spawned them. Reality is NOT about opinion. It is NOT about faith. It is NOT about blindly following your otherworldly worldviews and casting what is actually observed aside. Real Science, real History, real Psychology and Sociology are not about words but actions, and the understanding of those actions. They are about study, research, hard work. They are about putting the hours in, many hundreds of hours in, and after all that time, all that searching, being prepared to find nothing, being prepared to be wrong.

That is what makes science amazing. With each mistake comes a correction. With each correction comes a better understanding of the real world. Those of us in pursuit of such an understanding know it is not going to be easy. But to overturn what the Germans would called ‘wissenschaft’ [“ learning : science”- Mirriam Webster.] takes hard work and study. Far too many are far too lazy. They would rather indulge their personal biases by seeking out You Tube videos, Wikipedia entries and the abstracts (though rarely content) of seemingly supportive papers; often without reading the papers, almost always without seeking out dissenting voices and never considering the academic consensus. Science and learning are not based around controversy; there are actually very few controversies to teach because what rhetoricians call controversy, we call ‘unknowns’. It is about consensus. To many of the more rhetorically minded, consensus has become a dirty word, a conspiracy word, and they surround it with whooping hordes of rhetoric, wilful ignorance and more science denial.

Rhetoric is not enough. You can state whatever it is you believe and you can throw around your fallacies, long words and philosophical [mis]interpretations all you want. You can smother the observable universe in semiotics and linguistics and postmodern deconstructionist analyses. But at the end of the day, as David Hume observed
"We shall then see, whether you go out at the door or the window; and whether you really doubt, if your body has gravity, or can be injured by its fall".
-David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

So why do I care? Some might say I myself have been guilty of such rhetoric in the past, and they are right. I am prepared to be wrong and move on; are you? Some would accuse me of using rhetoric right now: perhaps, again, they are right. But my words are backed up by the fruits of Wissenschaft; by the computer I am using, by the coffee by my side, by the train that brought me home this evening. They are not merely contemplative, but demonstrative. I don’t imagine them at work, I see them in action.

The more people disappear into their other-worlds, no matter what those worlds may be, and think that rhetoric, born of emotion, born of faith and in turn born of whatever fairy story their culture or subculture likes the most at the time, the more the reality- what we actually know- will become diluted. I am a Historian, and I for one do not want to return to a world where the only reality is rhetoric, the only truth the loudest shouting voice; I have seen it in the pages of documents and the horrors of Europe’s past. Others would rather rule by loudly shouting about what they cannot possibly know. They want to change the game back from observable, measured reality to conjectured, rhetorical fantasy.

I do not. And neither, if truth be told, do they.

Richard Firth-Godbehere

Monday, 5 December 2011

The world has gone mad: an economic rant.

(I may be a bit more regular in this- no promises)

The ‘markets’ have got to go. I am sicking of hearing about them and how they become so easily upset. I don’t recall voting for these ‘markets’ (or the shareholders that create them) to become my government, but a world-government they seem to have become. It’s enough to make a conspiracy theorist burst forth with angry happiness. After a decade of privatising their wealth they have now socialised their debt amongst the poorest, and in Greece and Italy even democracy has bowed down to them. As Meatloaf once cried “Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii want my money back!” Life may not be a lemon, but it would appear our economic setup is. To make the situation even more juicy and delicious we have a ‘proper’ government, indeed a series of ‘proper’ governments around the world, who are like idiots with a flame. They see that pretty flickering austerity measure and can’t help but touch it over and over. “Ouch…it’s pretty…ouch…it’s pretty…” goes the cycle and unemployment rises, the economy collapses further and their only reaction is to burn all our fingers once again. Why? Because the metaphysical guff that is economic ‘science’ tells them that they must, and they don’t have the dingly-danglies to change course. After all, politicians can do many things. They can get caught lying; they can get caught having affairs and embezzling cash. They can go to jail, wreck the economy and lead us into badly if at all justified wars, but they can’t say “sorry, I got it wrong.” That would be professional suicide.

One thing that really puzzles me is this. They tell us that if we tax banks in any way whatever, they will move off our shores. Now call me daft, but isn’t that a good thing? These institutions have cost us hundreds of billions of pounds and brought the economy to its knees, but we just have to keep them? It’s like having a tenant who not only doesn’t pay rent, but burns your house to the ground and then tells you: “put my rent up to cover the rebuild and I’ll move out.” Good riddance, I say. Let’s move our economy back to making things, creating things and away from making money from making money. Let’s find new financial tenets.

The next point which pops into my mind (and yes, I am writing as I think) is: when did money become the be all and end all of life? When did being “rich” become synonymous with being “happy and successful”? It seems our worldview is all mixed up, especially those right-wingers who seem to think that the order of priority should be wealth (or property) - people (if we must) - and the planet (perhaps, maybe, actually, sod that, it’s too expensive). Sorry, but this is 100% back to front. Sadly, our economic morals seem to come from Mandeville more than they do from Hume and Smith, and we are stuck in an early modern cultural mind-set that equates property with power. I dream of a new economic model. One thinks first about the planet first, then about people’s happiness in this one life we have, and finally about wealth. If you first look after the planet (without which there will be no people), then keep people happy, and finally make plenty of money through taking risks, grasping opportunities, and working hard, then all power to you; I’m no socialist. How this becomes possible? I have no idea.

The markets need to stop ruling the world. We need to stop a group who believe we are all as self-interested and fiscally rational as they are. We need to, somehow, work out how on earth we can change this model so that the invisible hand stops strangling us, without descending into a world where market over-dominance is replaced by governmental over-dominance as all too happens with socialism. I don’t have any answers, but how about first our governments grow a pair and ask those responsible for the problem to pay for it, and stop bowing to financial blackmail? That, at least, would be a start.