Full Member of the Ruling Party

Brett Murray’s painting ‘Spear of the Nation’, featuring President Zuma in a VI Lenin pose, with a generously proportioned penis protruding (impossibly) from the shadows, has provoked a storm of controversy, and has been written about so much that it barely warrants any further comment. You can see the painting and read comment here: Mail&Guardian. Then you can read about the attempts at government censorship of the image here: CityPress; and some other decent pun-laden commentary here: Mondli Makhanya.

By the standards of the art world the painting is relatively tame; an artist called Ayanda Mabulu has suddenly gained some attention for also having painted Zuma in the buff (though without controversy), and his stuff is way more shocking. You can look at his Zuma pic here, or a nutty one about Robert Mugabe over here.

Some of the criticism clearly comes from people who do not visit galleries. But there are three areas of the debate that are genuinely shocking that I’d like to raise, because our national tendency towards outrage so frequently misses the point. All of them are embodied in this response from the presidency (Source: CityPress):

Said spokesperson Mac Maharaj: “We are amazed at the crude and offensive manner in which this artist denigrates the person and the office of the President of the Republic of South Africa.

“The Presidency is concerned that Brett Murray fails to appreciate that freedom carries a deep responsibility,” he said in the statement, adding that the right to freedom of artistic expression is not absolute.

Maharaj also said the Presidency was concerned that the painting “perpetuates a shocking new culture by some sections of the artistic world, of using vulgar methods of communicating about leading figures in the country, in particular the President”.

“Intense hatred of the new democratic administration or the ruling party should not translate into distorting South Africa’s value system of emphasising respect and of ensuring that disagreements are expressed in a cultured and civilised manner, which these artists are failing to do.”

1. Moral compass and degeneracy

Maharaj talks about our value system. Last night on the news, Reverend so-and-so was speaking at a high-profile funeral and used the opportunity to speak about the President’s penis (wouldn’t have been my go-to anecdote for a funeral). He expressed dismay that our society has lost its moral compass to such a degree that an artist could sink to such levels of degeneracy. He added that freedom of expression could not be allowed to cover such horrors.

This is utter raving lunacy for a few reasons. Firstly, as I’ve said, this would not have been considered shocking by the standards of the art world for the last number of centuries (even if we only restrict ‘art’ to mean paintings and galleries; literature has been nuttier for longer, and even the Bible is more graphic and passes harsher commentary on its leaders). Where have these people been?

Secondly, our country’s moral compass has been pointing far further south than this painting suggests for a very long time. Yesterday, a suspected thief was beaten by a township mob and then set on fire. Parents rape and kill their own kids here. Even our own wildly polygamous president has a chequered history with sexual abuse, conspiracy, and corruption, which is presumably part of what this painting is protesting. Many of those charges against Zuma remain unproven, but I haven’t heard too many reverends using high-profile funerals to complain that our president fathered a child with his friend’s daughter out of wedlock. If we’re going to talk about moral compass, let’s not imagine that this painting is a step down from our usual standard.

Thirdly, this presidency claims God’s blessing upon his party (see point 4 of this article) such that they will rule ‘until Jesus comes back’. The president — and especially his outraged reverend — should know then that the Bible disagrees strongly with them that leaders deserve unqualified reverence:

Deuteronomy 17:17 “The king must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. 18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is … not (to) consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.”

Matthew 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.”

In both passages, leaders are not to see themselves as superior to ‘ordinary’ citizens. They are brothers. They are not due special respect or disrespect. They are open to the same criticism as the rest of us. If our Christian and political leaders wish to invoke Jesus’ favour, then they should at least share his outlook.

If someone wishes to use their imagination to paint me in the nude then I should be as flattered or insulted as suits my personality, but I should have the same constitutional protections as the president. If it’s libellous for him, it’s libellous for me. None of this ‘But he’s the President (awed hush)’. If you’re not allowed to criticise the president in a democracy, don’t be surprised when you wake to find that you don’t have a democracy.

2. Bad analysis of visual communication

The second problem is that the outrage about this painting is so devoid of analysis appropriate to the field. All public commentary is on the level of ‘It’s Jacob Zuma’, and ‘That’s a penis’, and consequently ‘It’s trying to humiliate Jacob Zuma by showing his penis’. Maharaj’s analysis viewed it as ‘intense hatred’. That’s how toilet-stall graffiti works, but not art.

Visual art communicates primarily on symbolic levels. Depicting Jacob Zuma as the subject could mean lots of things. He could be representing Jacob Zuma, that’s true. But he could also stand for the present government, the ANC more broadly, the whole of the country, and so on. His penis might represent his shame (and so be an attempt at humiliating him), but it could also represent sexualisation of (for example) our society, it could represent abuse of power; it could even represent our government’s moral compass.

In other words, the picture may just as easily be about you, not JZ.

I can understand public misunderstanding of the function of art, because we don’t really study the arts deeply at school, and even if you did, you only had to get 30% in matric to pass, so you might have missed every point that mattered on the way to getting your qualification. But even our ministers overseeing the arts somehow fail to understand their field.

3. Threats to freedom and democracy

The most worrying feature of all is how something so innocuous could now form a new attack upon civic freedoms in this country. By way of reminder, Maharaj said:

“The Presidency is concerned that Brett Murray fails to appreciate that freedom carries a deep responsibility,” he said in the statement, adding that the right to freedom of artistic expression is not absolute.

The government set their lawyers upon the gallery, the newspapers, and anyone else that lingered long enough, trying to destroy the original image and any existing copies. At least they’re currently only sending lawyers. How long before it’s soldiers?

If this picture is indecent, then where does one draw the line? Does one censor Michaelangelo’s David for indecency, as in a famous Simpsons episode about the arts? If the problem is the implied criticism or humiliation of the president, then what about written criticisms that impugn his character or conduct? Is calling the president a dork treason now?

It’s amazing to me that the same people whose blood was shed to win freedom from enslavement to an evil government are willing to sign over those freedoms to a new government, just because they think this one will surely not abuse their trust.

Freedom of expression does carry responsibility, but I would have thought that the ANC of all people would recognise the importance of being able to protest wrongs in government. If anything, one of those responsibilities is to criticise those in power, not to pander to them.


Romney, Obama, Gay Marriage and Freedom

I’m not particularly invested in US politics, but seeing as half the country votes for the Republican party and many of those because it’s the default ‘Christian vote’, I take an interest in the role that theology and faith plays in their rhetoric. In that vein, I’ve been keeping half an eye on the recent ‘gay marriage’ issue in the presidency war.

Obama’s View

Obama has been getting flak from the GOP for claiming that his view on the issue of gay marriage is ‘evolving’, and for eventually coming down in favour of ‘civil unions’ (I’m not sure whether he’s decided that it is right to call it ‘marriage’ just yet).

I don’t think the criticism is deserved; there is something commendable about each of these points. Firstly, it means that his opinions are open to change and that he’s actually thinking about things, rather than giving whatever his party/publicist considers to be ‘the Right Answer’.

Secondly, while conceding civil unions, he also identified his faith as a reason why he is/was unhappy calling these unions ‘marriages’. Maybe he was overtly trying to appear more centrist than the average Democrat — to appeal a tiny bit more to Christian voters — bit still, I thought that it was a risky admission and demonstrated a bit of principle. It’s probably politicking, but it may just show that he is willing to express a personal belief that may be unpopular, and also to subordinate it to what he considers best for those who don’t share his beliefs.

Romney’s Recent Speech

This morning I read that Romney had been campaigning at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and had used the opportunity to take a veiled jibe at Obama, but mostly to argue that:

  • Marriage between “one man and one woman” is an “enduring institution” that should be defended
  • Faith in our Maker is more important that trivial things, and that differences in creed and theology can be overcome by emphasising shared moral convictions and worldview
  • Religious freedom is something that needs to be protected

I agree with nearly everything that he argues here. Nearly. But the point at which we disagree seems to me to call into question the integrity of everything else he says. My issue is the supposed ‘shared moral convictions and worldview’.

Romney is a Mormon talking to a broadly Christian audience. There is a great deal of difference in ‘moral convictions and worldview’, even just between Mormons and Christians, so much so that Romney’s church would typically be defined as a cult by his audience that day. We do not share beliefs and worldview, except maybe on the broadest terms.

More importantly, this attempt at finding common ground with his audience is even more unpracticable when applied to the nation as a whole. As he tacitly acknowledges by pleading ‘freedom of religion’, there isn’t complete homogeneity, even among the religious. The US is a pluralist society where opinions on morality and worldviews vary drastically, and their right to differ is constitutionally protected.

It is freedom of religion that enables Romney to be a Mormon, and he can be one even when Christians or Atheists or Clintons are in office. Leaders who are willing to protect the rights of those with whom they disagree ensure that such freedom exists. Leaders who only protect the liberties that suit them are actually a danger to liberty altogether.

Someone so eager to collect on the leeway that this particular freedom offers him ought to be more sensitive to groups that consider their freedom to be unfairly restricted in other areas. Romney’s talk about protecting marriage is the positive way of saying that he plans to restrict the freedom of people outside his camp to be married. Because their different moral and religious beliefs are too different. Now he may be right, but he’s not even acknowledging the complexities involved, let alone solving them.

It is ironic for someone defending the long and venerable tradition of Christian marriage that the Mormon church spent 50 years defending their right to practice polygamy. Some factions still do. Interestingly, polygamy was outlawed in the US because freedom of religion protects what people believe. What people do is governed by law, and polygamy was considered unlawful practice, not an idiosyncratic belief. Seeing as the US does not consider the practice of homosexuality to be unlawful, I find it hard to see how lawmakers can become inflexible concerning beliefs about marriage and deny civil benefits to couples whose behaviour is perfectly legal.

Romney makes pretty speeches, but he needs to demonstrate why his message doesn’t amount to ‘Yay freedom, except for those who are too different from us’.

So Romney received a standing ovation from the 30,000 in his audience, when in reality, it seems that Obama is the one whose faith and worldview is closer to that audience, and Obama is the one who is concerning himself with protecting the civil liberties also of people with whom he disagrees, not just in the convenient matter of religious freedom, but in the more contentious areas of governance too.

It’s easy to love your friends and to protect what is yours, but what does Romney plan to defend and protect for those people who do not fit into the homogenous faith community that he tries to paint here?


A note on my own beliefs: As a conservative Christian, I believe that homosexuality is wrong, and I would prefer marriage to be defined in traditional ways. The trouble politically is this:

  • Marriage is not Christian. It is nearly universal, and even in ‘Christian’ countries, non Christians may marry regardless of their faith. Seeing as marriage is not exclusively Christian, I find it hard to see how it can be protected on religious grounds, except if Christians campaign to protect some  religiously defined marriage concept that belongs only to them (which I would support).
  • Homosexuality is not illegal. If homosexuals have all the sexual and relational freedoms of marriage made available to them already, it makes the matter of calling them ‘legally married’ or not fairly irrelevant. We seem to me to be scrapping over legal status and benefits. The horse has bolted.

If gay marriage is wrong, it needs to be demonstrated more carefully. There may be some value in arguing that long-standing definitions of marriage are inherently worth protecting, but antiquity is not necessarily a sign of value. There may be some worth in arguing that there is social and psychological value in preserving the definitions of family that we do. I certainly believe that children probably benefit from growing up with a parent of each gender, but kids have turned out OK after being raised by one parent or even one grandparent, so what do I know? Point is, it’s complicated, and the matter isn’t settled by shouting ‘protect the family’ really loudly.


Reader Comment

A friend helpfully observed the following:

You’ve alluded to something that could be made more explicit.  There are two aspect to marriage, a legal and traditional part.  The tradition of marriage, which is informed by a person’s beliefs, came first and because of the partnership accept to marriage and the resulting implications for society, governments have realised the need to legislate marriage.  The distinction is very obvious in countries such as France but can also be observed in South Africa.  In France, you get legally married before the town mayor as the agent of government.  The traditional ceremony is then performed afterwards according to your beliefs. Priests, Rabbis and other religious leaders don’t have the right to perform the legal ceremony so one can clearly identify the two different aspects.

Given these two distinctions, I’ve always thought the legal partnership should be made available to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation because of the impact on society.

I see two questions, the first is: is gay marriage wrong?  The answer is most certainly yes, according to God’s word.  The second question is: given the reality of life in fallen world, should it be legislated?  Here I would say yes, to protect the weakest person in this partnership.  I don’t think one has to assume that because it’s legislated it’s not wrong.

I therefore think Obama’s stance on gay marriage says nothing about his beliefs.  His stance on abortion probably says much more…


Politics of Hatred in South Africa

South African politics reached a near-miraculous high point under Nelson Mandela, with a much-wronged political leader putting self-sacrifice into practice to lead the whole nation out of its Apartheid mire. His party, the ANC, has been trading on that capital for 20 years, and rightly so. However, that goodwill has been exploited so ruthlessly in recent years, with one corruption scandal after the next, and catastrophic failures of entire provinces, that many of its supporters have become disillusioned and have stopped voting, or have given their vote to the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). The ANC seems to be genuinely concerned by the ground they’ve lost, because more than ever, the political tactic is to brand their opponents as racist, even with all the evidence to the contrary.

The best recent example involves the DA leader Helen Zille’s remark on Twitter that people flocking from the ANC-run  Eastern Cape province to the DA-run Western Cape in order to find proper schooling are ‘education refugees’. The migration has been happenning because of scandalous corruption and mismanagement of schooling in the ECape, which has brought it to the brink of collapse. The department managed to spend only 28% of its budget in the face of incredible need, compared with the WCape, which spent all of theirs. Instead of public discussion raging about this awful deprivation of the right to education in the ECape, certain sectors began decrying Zille’s fairly innocuous metaphor (‘education refugees’) as racist. Our country has now spent a whole month pretending to be shocked about that statement, while the near-fatal pillaging of the ECape by its leaders is hardly an issue.

In the Papers Today

In this morning’s Star, the front page reports on Patric Mellet (a senior Home Affairs official) who spewed a deeply offensive rant on Facebook about Zille’s supposed racism.

The Star quotes him as saying:

The Devolved Apartheid Party (DA) are now really going back to their roots… Zille everyday more and more sounds like PW Botha… the skew mouth, the wagging finger, the voice with the wry smile and pregnant pause, and the Apartheid talk about alien refugees flooding into the White-Coloured Labour Preference Area… wow… this closely follows her Butcher of Hangberg orders to deal ruthlessly with opposition resulting in ‘the shoot the eyes out of protesters’ action by kitskonstabels.

Mein Fuhrer Helen Zille motormouth does not cease to amaze with her cloned NP style.

The DA really have become the Devolved Apartheid Party. How she justifies her racist rants just deepens the foot in mouth disease. PW Botha has risen from the dead. She really does him proud.

Now let’s see on what the comparisons to Hitler and Apartheid villain PW Botha are based:

  • finger wagging
  • pausing and smiling while speaking in public
  • ‘Apartheid talk about alien refugees flooding into’ the Cape

The first two points are shameful in their own way. The argument is, ‘Hitler used standard public-speaking techniques; Botha used standard public-speaking techniques; Zille uses standard public-speaking techniques. Therefore Zille is a hateful, racist Apartheid psycho.’

Zuma and Malema use the same rhetorical techniques when they speak, so are they also returning to Apartheid politics? Of course not. It is a ridiculous, cheap ploy to transfer similarity in one area (physical appearance) to other areas (political ideology) without any relevant evidence.

So what about the evidence?
The last point has the appearance of evidence, but again, it is misleading. Mellet clearly believes that Zille’s statement was motivated by xenophobic hatred for refugees, because he’s spewing this on Facebook, not in some political point-scoring forum. But he’s believing his own party’s spin on words that she herself never said (‘alien refugees flooding’). In fact, Zille herself explained a week ago on the party’s newsroom page what her not-very-unclear refugee metaphor means:

That brings me to the matter of the “education refugees”,  which is how I described the thousands of learners who arrive during the course of the first term in Western Cape schools, because their right to education has been betrayed in their home province, the Eastern Cape.  These learners accounted for 44% of all new registrations, from Grade 1 to Grade 12, in Western Cape schools this year.  This student migration is the major reason we are undertaking an emergency school building programme to complete 45 new schools within our term of office (while the Eastern Cape spent a paltry 28% of its infrastructure budget last year).  The difference is clear: We treat all children as full, legitimate South African citizens and we respect their right to education. The ANC does not.

This is the real scandal.  But it was buried by the eruption of pseudo outrage about the word “refugees” – which was conveniently uncoupled from its qualifying noun “education”. Very soon it became “self-evident” that I had referred to all black people in the Western Cape as “refugees”.  And, of course, this was irrefutable “proof” of my “racism”.

In other words, the idea that the DA is opposed to the presence of ECape people was drummed up by those trying to make her look bad. She herself was describing the ECape like a warzone from which people must flee (hence ‘refugee’), and pointing out that they are in the process of building new schools so that they can serve these people. Her concern is for the worrying state of the ECape and the shortage of schools in the WCape as a result. There is no mention of the undesirability of the people in the slightest. Generally, if you want to prevent refugees from staying in your land, you don’t accommodate them. And generally, if you’re trying to be a racist and keep a certain group beaten down, you don’t educate them. I don’t know why the ANC doesn’t care about educating people in the ECape, but Zille and her ilk are the ones trying to improve their lot. What a freaking racist she is (that’s sarcasm, if you’re bad at metaphor and irony).

So Mellet, a person acquainted (I hope) with metaphor, context, and the DA Newsroom website, should have had no trouble differentiating between what Zille said and meant, and what spin doctors have said about it. The fact that he even complains about her attempts at explaining, when he clearly needs the explanation, is even more horrifying.

So What?

One of the online comments to the Star article thought that this was just a case of name-calling of the sort that takes place all the time in politics. He said:

it funny dat helen zille can call President Zuma names but when it happens to her people must be fired.

Name-calling is always regrettable, and Zille is obviously not always impeccable, but there’s a difference between name-calling and attempting to sow racial hatred by likening someone to an Apartheid monster. The latter is slander, and it might even qualify as racial incitement and hate speech (a British student was imprisoned for racist joking on Twitter recently on these grounds).

One way or another, it is yet another instance in a long line of ANC accusations of racism in the DA, when the evidence is uniformly to the contrary. If you say something enough times, people will start to believe it, and it seems to be the weapon that the ANC is employing to attempt to discredit their opposition, who have an annoying habit of not running provinces into the ground. But if the ANC is having to drum up racism that isn’t there, then who is the one guilty of Apartheid divisiveness?

This tactic seems to me to be an attempt to bring back the divisions of 20 years ago so that it can once again be ‘the ANC against the racist oppressor’; it is an attempt to restock Nelson Mandela’s political capital without having Mandela’s integrity. And sadly, if some of the comments on the Star article are any indication, it is working.

Ethics: No Harm No Foul?

I recently wrote criticising the Democratic Christian Alliance for being over-sensitive in the matter of the slightly-sexually-suggestive DASO poster. In the same post, I also hinted that, according to my moral outlook, sex belongs only within a marriage relationship. A reader complained that, in implying that certain sexual acts are immoral, I was demonstrating that I actually agree with the CDA position that I claimed to oppose. This is my attempt at explaining how the CDA and I differ.

The difference between my approach and that of the CDA is the difference between public and private ethics. In a pluralistic society, there is likely to be (or ought to be) a difference between what one personally considers to be morally right, and what one considers to be morally binding on everybody else. The CDA response to the ‘immoral’ poster was out of line because as a political organisation they need to demonstrate why their moral opinions should be binding on all; they ought not to be making accusations without evidence and on the basis of their preferences.

The harm principle

Public morality—at least in the hands of liberal politicians—tends to be governed by the harm principle. It says that one is permitted to do nearly anything, so long as no one gets hurt (against their will). It is not too different from that common moral teaching, ‘Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you’. It is a good principle in the sense that it gives wide and satisfying scope for individual freedom, and it is also a reasonably simple and practical guideline for public behaviour.

I am in favour of the harm principle as the criterion to which members of society should be held. While it makes it highly unlikely that the wider public will ever live in a way that I consider moral, it also means that no one will force their ideas about morality on me. Furthermore, the same principle gives me the freedom to practice Christianity even under the rule of non-Christian governments, it allows me to tell people what I believe, and it allows us all to change our beliefs if we wish. Even if I wanted a government that forced Christian standards upon all citizens (I don’t), I would undoubtedly be at war with a government that attempted to force me to live according to another religion. If I would find this government interference to be evil when it goes against me, how could I consider it good and loving to others to support such interference just because the moral preferences suit me?

So I find the principle of harms to be the best way of accommodating the variety of belief present in pluralistic society, but I don’t think therefore that it is an ideal moral system.

The problem with harms

The harm principle is something of a lowest common denominator. I strongly believe that there are moral criteria that extend beyond merely inflicting pain on others.

For example, when conservative religious parties complain about sexual immorality (such as with the DASO poster), the usual response from further left is that the act involves consenting adults acting within a relationship of love, they are harming no one, and so who has the right to tell them that their behaviour is immoral? It seems to me, however, that this line of reasoning is abandoned by nearly everyone when one of the lovers also falls in love with a third consenting adult. There remains a relationship of love between both pairs of consenting adults, and yet the first lover experiences it as betrayal.

As far as I’m aware, infidelity (or is this just premarital polygamy?) doesn’t violate the harm principle. There is no compelling reason why you have to feel hurt when someone loves  you and someone else, and certainly there is no intention to inflict pain. Either way, it is the absence of the positive virtue (fidelity) that defines this sort of action as immoral, rather than the presence of a negative (harm). Sleeping with someone else remains immoral, even if your spouse could not possibly find out and never does.

So, as a public-policy-defining moral basis, the harm principle is good. But as an actual standard of moral ideals, it leaves out too much. Morality, for example, ought to include positive virtues.

The love principle

Rather than ‘harm’ as the main idea, I prefer ‘love’ as the basis for morality, even though that may sound vague or hackneyed. Instead of ‘not doing to others what you’d not want done to you’, the moral ideal should be ‘do as you would have done to you’. It’s an active principle of doing good, rather than merely avoiding evil. Furthermore, the love principle incorporates the principle of harms; as St Paul says,

Whatever commandments there may be are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law. [Romans 13:9-10]

Love allows people of different beliefs to coexist in freedom, but it also demands more, both in responsibility to others, and in the limiting of one’s own freedoms for the sake of higher goods, such as fidelity.

Qualities such as ‘love’ and ‘the good’ are difficult to define and harder to legislate, but nevertheless, an individual’s moral judgements should be informed by avoiding immediate harm, positive application of virtue, positive action for the good of others, consideration of function and purpose, and willingness to intervene to prevent present or future harm to the individual or to society. Love, as they say, must sometimes be tough, and so this principle may prove more restrictive (in some ways) than harms does, but nevertheless, morality is always a higher calling than what we do by nature.

Me, the CDA, and sex outside of marriage

So, like the CDA, I believe that promiscuity is immoral, yet unlike the CDA, I don’t believe that it is the responsibility of officials and organisations to agree with me or to insist that the wider public must. This is especially true of issues that we consider immoral because they are against God’s commands. If something is to be binding upon everyone, then there needs to be strong support for it beyond ‘It’s against my beliefs’. After all, I wouldn’t want to be punished for having a birthday party or refused a blood transfusion for my child just because a Jehovah’s Witness happened to be in power.

While I believe that adults should be free to engage in sex outside of marriage if they wish, I consider it immoral for reasons in addition to divine command. To be moral, sex needs to conform to the principle of love, and therefore be suitably other-person-centred, yet sex can easily be selfish behaviour that can be extremely unloving.

Because the sex act involves unparalleled levels of intimacy and trust between participants, and because participating in it (generally speaking) includes the possibility of bearing children, there is a level of commitment implicit in the act. If one is truly acting in a loving way towards one’s partner, then one should be able to precede sex with an act of commitment that matches the level of trust implicit in sex. If you’ll commit in word to be faithful, but not in deed (by actual contract), then what good is your word? You may well argue that the commitment of marriage is disproportionate to the one implied by having sex, but that’s a matter of opinion. Sex is a powerful emotional force that can do damage if abused, and especially if one adds a pregnancy to the equation, then the willingness to commit to a relational environment built to cope with such consequences (i.e. marriage) no longer seems that extreme. Again, if you can’t take responsibility for those kinds of consequences before sex, are you sure that you will after? So I’d agree with the Biblical judgement that premarital sex has a tendency towards self-gratification rather than the other-person-centeredness of love, and is as such immoral.

Don’t be a Dawk about it

Richard feeling grumpy after an embarrassing radio interview

Richard Dawkins recently published the results of a survey into the level of religious belief in Britain. Among the more shocking revelations was that only one in three Christians could correctly answer a four-option multiple choice question asking them to identify the first book of the New Testament.

Rev Giles Fraser made a risky comeback, asking Dawkins whether he could give the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Dawkins went blank on it, stumbled around for a while, but eventually got it mostly right.

Fraser used this lapse to say,

‘If you ask people who believe in evolution that question, and you came back and said 2 per cent got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to say they don’t believe it after all.’ (Source: Daily Mail)

As a result, there has been a fair bit of ridicule and triumphalism bandied about on the net by Christians or other Dawkins-dislikers.

This is unfortunate for more reasons than Dawkins gives (i.e. that the question he had to answer was disproportionately difficult, compared with the Matthew multiple-choice).

Firstly, Fraser’s retort seems to suggest that Christian belief without even the most basic awareness of Christian content is somehow acceptable. Yet on the contrary, even the most rudimentary acquaintance with Jesus’ teachings makes it clear that Jesus rests everything on hearing, keeping, and obeying his teaching, and following his example, such as:

  • Lk. 14:27 “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
  • Jn. 8:31 “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.”
  • Jn. 15:14 “You are my friends if you do what I command.” (See also Matt. 7:26-27; John 8:47,51; 15:10)

Dawkins is probably right, therefore, that the majority of Britons who identify themselves as Christians actually have no functioning religious belief whatsoever.

Secondly, Fraser’s superficial victory has drawn Christian attention away from these rather alarming revelations from Dawkins’ research. Instead of hearing what Dawkins said, Christians have majored on his (understandable) memory lapse. Yet these are some of the conclusions of his research (taken also from AndrewCopson.net):

  • 17% of Christians have never read the Bible
  • 28% of census Christians believe in Christian teachings
  • 6% had attended a church in the last week
  • 65% said they were not religious
  • 48% believe Jesus was a real person who was the son of God, died and came back to life
  • 10% say they seek most guidance on questions of right and wrong from religious teachings or beliefs
  • 60% hadn’t read the Bible in the last year
  • 28% say that it is a belief in the teachings of Christianity that makes them tick the Christian census-box

Dawkins is surely right, therefore, that the majority of British Christians are functionally atheistic. And how can Fraser be correct that the statistics do not fairly describe belief in Christianity when the stats show that ‘Christians’ are not acquainted with Christian writings, do not concern themselves all that much with Christian morality, do not identify with Christian beliefs, and do not attend church? Is there something more basic than belief and practice that defines the Christian religion? There isn’t according to Christian texts and church history, but maybe these days the enjoyment of cake and warm handshakes is sufficient (although diabetics and the arthritic are also more than welcome).

Dawkins also wrong

Having said all that, let me not give the impression that I think Dawkins’ point stretches any further. His motivation for presenting this research is to say that even though the census reveals that almost 70% call themselves Christian, tax money should not be allocated to the benefit of Christian organisations or religious ends of any kind, because the people are not really Christian.

The object of the poll , carried out by Ipsos Mori for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, appears to have been to discredit the use of census data to justify Christian practices such as government funding for faith schools and bishops having seats in the House of Lords. (Source: The Week)

The obvious response is that Dawkins’ findings will matter for nominal Christians on Judgement Day, should there prove to be one. Where they don’t matter is in the realm of politics. Government ought to be distributing some of its funds (taken from the taxpayer) according to the will of the taxpayer. If people wish for government to spend money on environmental preservation, it doesn’t really matter how many of those people have Range Rovers and don’t recycle. It remains their will. Similarly, if census respondents identify themselves with Christian things, it is right for government to spend accordingly, irrespective of how devout those people turn out to be, or how consistent their beliefs are. Charges of hypocrisy are unfortunately not relevant, Mr Dawkins.

Beware: Possible hint of suggestive imagery. Not sure.

There appears to be a storm spilling out of its teacup and soiling a perfectly good saucer all because of some poorly chosen stock photography. The Democratic Alliance Student Somethingorother have published a poster which has been described by some as ‘shocking’. It features a beefy white guy hugging a non-beefy non-white non-male person who may or may not be indecently dressed. I for one would like the guy to put on a shirt, because really, some of us struggle to put on muscle mass. It’s unkind.

Anyway, the poster is so shocking that I am completely willing to post it on this site, which will automatically email it to my mother (hi mom!).Shocking No, it really isn’t shocking at all.

While some writers have intentionally misunderstood the meaning of the poster for comedic effect (it does invite some ridicule unfortunately), it quite clearly means to communicate that the DASO aims at a non-racial future in which the scene pictured will illicit no surprise. It’s an entirely praiseworthy message, although depending on the context, bumping into people apparently that undressed will hopefully always cause a double-take.

In spite of it not being any more shocking than day-time television, the Christian Democratic Party went to town on it. Theunis Botha, clearly unfamiliar with the extremes, claims that it is ‘distasteful to the extreme’, and that it promotes sexual immorality and promiscuity. He adds:

“In a country with high levels of Aids and an overdose of crime, especially the high incidence of farm murders this year, this poster sends the opposite message to the country than needed.” (Source: Mail & Guardian)

Of course, this is ridiculously far from reality. The couple isn’t doing anything lewd, and who says that what they may or may not be planning won’t be taking place within the bonds of holy matrimony? There is not much immoral or voyeuristic about the image either, because even though it is slightly racier than Jacob Zuma’s last election poster, the couple in view might easily be on the beach; there is nothing more revealing here than is on display onyour average day out with your kids to the seaside. The poster certainly isn’t advocating sex or spreading STDs, and it doesn’t promote promiscuity, unless seeing biceps the size of my thigh sends you into an uncontrollable frenzy. It may encourage farm murders, but I have yet to spot the connection.

As a Christian, I’m extremely disappointed that a Christian party would try to score cheap points against a rival on such flimsy moralistic grounds. Is it really serving any sort of discussion in this country to oppose a message of racial harmony because of an excessive amount of arm skin? Is it really necessary to radicalise your disagreement so that vaguely tittilating imagery must be described as ‘distasteful to the extreme’? In connection with a poster about racism, must you bring up farm murders, the big white-advocacy issue of our day?

I wish Christian parties were rather at the cutting edge of positive change, good ideas for promoting peace and reconciliation, for combatting poverty and so on. Instead we get this. It’s annoying that in response to a poster encouraging unity any Christian politician should be leading the polarising, petty, divisive rhetoric against it. The first step to overcoming our national problems just really isn’t the banning of pictures of hugging.

Prayer and Politics

Jack Bloom, the Democratic Alliance leader in the Gauteng legislature, recently published an opinion piece encouraging prayer as a means of moral regeneration that perhaps had the power to galvanise people to action in a way that politicians could not. Drawing anecdotally upon prayer-led regenerative movements in history and some of the changes that they had a role in shaping, he rounds off with the suggestion that conservative religious institutions should perhaps return to a position of greater moral and social authority. You can read his piece at http://bit.ly/wKjMmh.

A friend of mine, Jacques Rousseau, took issue with him, pointing out that anecdotal evidence of the sort presented does not actually prove any connection between prayer, religious revivals, and especially the change that has supposedly resulted from them. Any number of factors might have had a far greater role in, say, abolition of slavery, than religious movements. Jacques also gives evidence that secular countries tend to have a better ethical record than religious ones. You can read his riposte at http://bit.ly/yQ4x3E.

[Jack has since responded (http://bit.ly/Ar9BC9) arguing among other things that good secularism is still trading upon religious moral capital. This is a common retort, and one about which we’ll have to wait and see, I suppose. I personally doubt it is as simple as that. Anyway, the exchange is interesting and worth following.]

I would like to add a couple of points to the debate, perhaps we’ll call it one for each side.

Firstly, as an endorsement of Jack Bloom’s sentiments, I think that prayer can play an important role. Of course, much depends on addressing the true God and in the right manner, which is by no means a guarantee, but even from a purely pragmatic (virtually secular) perspective, it can be important. The reason for this is that prayer has a good chance of promoting humility. It is perfectly possible in the hands of the worst sort of people for prayer to be one more tool in service of hubris (take for example Jesus’ caricature of that Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers…” [Luke 18:11]). Yet prayer is per definition an act of casting oneself upon what one believes to be a higher power. This ought to breed a sense of perspective.

Humility is certainly something that is needed in this country, from the top down. In fact, Jim Collins, a researcher of organisational change, has written identifying hubris as the first of five steps that successful companies take on the road to utter failure. Restoration of humility and renouncing of complacency are the only cure (http://amzn.to/UctDR). If prayer can play a role in growing humility, I say advocate it. If people end up praying earnestly to the right God who then turns out to exist and care, all the better.

Secondly, as a caution to Jack Bloom, in particular concerning his opinion that religions should wield more social and moral clout, I would be concerned that it makes all the difference who those religious are. The good sort are great, but the bad can be really bad. I would hate to be taking cues from the frequently confused type, but taking moral guidance from some of them would be hell on earth. Some confuse Sharia law for morality, or the ‘God inspired’ hatred of gays.

The Greek philosophers rated monarchy as the best system of government, if the king were good and noble, but had the potential to be the worst if the king were wicked (democracy, in their view was the least desirable because it had the least potential for going wrong, or for getting anything worthwhile done — hopefully they would like what we’ve done with it). Handing moral responsibility over to the religious could have good effect if they were wise, benevolent, principled, and selfless. But I don’t fancy the chances.