Moral reforms and deteriorations are moved by large forces, and they are mostly caused by reactions from the habits of a preceding period. Backwards and forwards swings the great pendulum, and its alternations are not determined by a few distinguished folk clinging to the end of it. — Sir Charles Petrie, The Victorians

This weekend, I’ve watched Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and skimmed through Melanie Phillips‘s All Must Have Prizes.

Gosford Park is an entertaining comedy/murder mystery set in an English country house, with a cast of just about every British actor you’ve ever heard of. The film is set in the 1930s, when the country houses in England had already begun their decline, and is interesting for its accurate portrayal of the relations between the servant and landed classes at the time. It’s a little long, but is gorgeously filmed. Recommended.

The title of All Must Have Prizes comes from the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, who, after a nonsensical running race in which the participants stopped and started as they pleased, declared that “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”.

Phillips’s burden is the decline of the educational system in the UK, which she places in the context of a wider moral decline. Phillips herself is quite a character. During her career as a journalist and columnist, she’s made the transition from newspapers traditionally associated with the political left to the Daily Mail, a nasty right-wing tabloid. But fear not, for the book was first published in 1996, before this transition, and, on the subject of the decline in educational standards, she’s right.

What strikes me as odd is that employers and university teachers (or indeed, anyone who has looked at old O-level papers) know that GCSEs and A-levels have been reducing their content for years, and yet apparently nobody is allowed to say so because it would devalue the work put in by the children taking the exams. Unfortunately, the time spent on work isn’t necessarily proportional to how much a child learns, especially with the amount of make-work kids are given (things like project work, making posters, and often coursework fall into that category).

Phillips places the blame for this on a politicised educational establishment in the Department of Education and in teacher training colleges, who are more interested in making ideological points than in preparing children for work or university. As the title of the book suggests, she believes that their main errors are to insist that children should direct their own learning, that they should not be given work which they may see as hard or boring, and most of all, that they should never be allowed to think they have failed at anything. This leads to everyone being equally mediocre, like in that Kurt Vonnegut story.

But Mom broke up with Brad; she didn’t like craftsmen, she said, because they were too much like actual Victorians, always spouting all kinds of crap about how one thing was better than another thing, which eventually lead, she explained, to the belief that some people were better than others. — Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.

The later, and more controversial, chapters of the book link the decline in educational standards to a wider decline, characterised by an emphasis on rights rather than responsibilities and a lack of respect for authority. Phillips is especially concerned with the decline in conventional family life: while she does not make the mistake of saying that parental divorce always leads to delinquent children, she does argue that it makes such delinquency more likely. Phillips thinks of herself as a left-wing liberal, and pins the blame for shirking of responsibility on Margaret Thatcher’s “me generation”, pointing out that the name “Conservative Party” is a misnomer for an administration which was in fact dedicated to making sweeping changes.

It’s here that I part company with Phillips to some extent. She seems to have moved further to the right these days: on her website, she makes it clear that, for example, she does not approve of the Government’s moves to allow civil partnerships for homosexuals, despite the fact that people who wish to form such partnerships presumably wish to express commitment and responsibility, two of the things which she sees as lacking in modern Britain. Similarly, she laments the decline of the Church of England but doesn’t quite have to the courage to say that she supports religion as a source of social cohesion: if not, then why lament its decline? Phillips teeters on the edge of the faith-based community, somewhat worryingly for her readers in the reality-based one.

On her wider point, though, I find myself agreeing with her. As I’ve said before, people without a culture which makes value judgements are mightily screwed. The current backlash against chavs and suchlike is a reflection of a wider culture which is running out of patience (oddly enough, this entry from epsilon_moo appeared while I was composing mine). Almost everyone on my friends-of-friends list who lives in London appears to have been mugged or burgled at least once. Meanwhile the Government invests in the white elephant of identity cards (Phillips’s prediction that without corrective action we risk tribalism or facism seems quite prescient for 1996) and promises to make more laws which will not be enforced.

In many ways we are better off than we were in the days of Gosford Park, when the rich few lived like, well, gentry, and the lower classes were humble and Knew Their Place, and I know that Greek or Roman bloke also said that the youth of his day had no respect, but these days, talk of Stephenson’s phyles and burbclaves is also looking prescient (the Londoner I know who hasn’t been burgled lives behind a gate and a security guard). So, are we doomed?

Went to Safi’s birthday party, which included a ceidlidh by the marvelous Karl Sandeman, who seems to have cornered the market in this town. Much fun was had.

I had a random encounter with an evangelical Christian, who we shall call R, who it turns out I recognised from my StAG days. Found myself wishing for hyperlinks in conversation, since a lot of it covered ground I’ve been over before. Along with another atheist, who we shall call A, we talked about what basis there was for morality without God. R felt that any atheistic morality would eventually come down to “might makes right”. While that’s true in the sense that if a very large number of people believe something, it’s hard for people who don’t to make any headway (and perhaps even for them to survive), I hope intelligent people see the need for co-operation and that a civilised society is better than Mad Max. In any case, evangelical Christianity also comes down to might making right: it’s just in their case, it’s God who will impose his will by force one day.

Interestingly, R didn’t think that the reason why God doesn’t show himself much was to avoid overwhelming our free will (which is an argument I’ve heard before), but rather that it was up to God to decide how much to reveal of himself, and that he’d revealed enough that non-believers were without excuse. She made reference to the line at the end of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” So it was arrogant of people to insist on more evidence. I think that’s something of a cop-out, myself. Although I can see that it’d make sense if you were already committed to the idea that what God says goes, it isn’t particularly useful for evangelism.

Got onto how well attested the New Testament was from other sources, which really becomes an argument about how much the Gospel writers made up, and whether there are later Christian modifications to people like Josephus. I attempted to short circuit this discussion by saying that nobody is asking me to bet my eternal destiny on whether Julius Caesar existed, but if I’m to choose between EvangelicalChristianGod, Allah, and whoever, I’d better have a bit more evidence because those deities’ followers tell me the stakes are rather high.

We then got on to whether creation provides evidence of a God. It went like this:

R: The Bible says that God is clearly seen in creation, so that unbelievers are without excuse.
Me: aha, but science and God of the gaps.
R: aha, but Just Six Numbers.
A: aha, but Weak Anthropic Principle.
Me: and deism isn’t Christianity, right? All this is just a plausibility argument.

Thence to the fate of us unbelievers. Like nlj21 (see recent discussion), R was clear that A and I are pretty much doomed, as we’ve heard the evangelical Christian gospel and rejected it. A was not worried by this as he thinks it’s all a lie anyway, but was was more interested in R’s opinion on the fate of people who haven’t heard. Somewhat surprisingly, R thought that they might be doomed too. Her reasoning was that God was justified in condemning everyone, and so whoever was saved should thank God for his grace and favour. A seemed somewhat shocked by this. Felt compelled to defend Christianity and point out that not all Christians believe this.

Again, there’s that disconnect between what evangelical Christians think they and others are guilty of and what most people think of as justice. As I’ve said elsewhere, I find it hard to comprehend the mentality that believes itself to be deserving of Hell. It seems a common tactic among evangelical Christians to say things like “I know how sinful I am”, presumably in an attempt to show that they don’t think they’re better than non-Christians. The problem is, the people saying this are generally the nice personable ones (such as the anonymous commenter who’s been talking to me about my essay, on this entry). It makes me want to shake them, sometimes. In non-Christian love, of course.

Then we talked about the evangelical way of reading the Bible, of which I’ve said a lot already, so I won’t rehearse it all here.

Then the party ended and I went home, after delivering a very dense amp back to Homerton. There isn’t a conclusion, other than that people don’t really seem to reach conclusions in arguments like this. Still, they’re quite fun to have, anyhow.

lisekit has a discussion on novels, religion and relativism in religion. She says that, where religion is concerned, she doesn’t like to say that anyone’s views are more or less valuable than anyone else’s. This set me thinking about the idea of relativism in general (which lisekit isn’t advocating, lest I accuse her of it, as she mentions respect and tolerance as moral virtues).

I seem to have been brainwashed by Neal Stephenson into believing that strict relativism is undesirable because it does not work. If you cannot say one thing is better than another, the only sin left is hypocrisy (and, perhaps, intolerance 🙂 In a sense I’m a relativist, since I don’t believe in absolutes imposed by a deity, but in another sense, that of refusing to say that one thing is better than another, I am not. In morality, say, I advocate things which I believe will lead to a society which I hope will be a good one for myself and people I care for. In religion, I would like to see well-reasoned disagreement between people who do think their viewpoint is the right one but are prepared to learn from others. Better that than the pop-culture spirituality which accepts everything that feels good (poor Greg Egan’s disgust for that sort of thing in Silver Fire makes me think he’s forgotten what G.K. Chesterton said happens to people who stop believing in God). Stephenson again:

The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And–again–perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won’t nuke each other.

On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you’ve got some tools.

In this country, the people who run things–who populate major law firms and corporate boards–understand all of this at some level. They pay lip service to multiculturalism and diversity and non-judgmentalness, but they don’t raise their own children that way. I have highly educated, technically sophisticated friends who have moved to small towns in Iowa to live and raise their children, and there are Hasidic Jewish enclaves in New York where large numbers of kids are being brought up according to traditional beliefs. Any suburban community might be thought of as a place where people who hold certain (mostly implicit) beliefs go to live among others who think the same way.
In the Beginning was the Command Line

(The rest of Stephenson’s essay is a huge digression on technology and culture, seen through the lens of the Windows/Unix clash: it’s well worth reading if you’ve an hour to spare).

I suppose I’m back to morality as enlightened self-interest again: the reason these people are inculcating their children in their particular culture is because those cultures work, and they want their children to be happy, fulfilled and all that stuff. There are cultures which don’t, and I’ll gladly preach the superiority of those which work over those which don’t, as it’s in my own interest to do so.

I stumbled across saltshakers on my Friends of Friends page and got into a debate about morality and various other things. Don’t really want to be the sort of atheist who hangs out on Christian internet sites and harangues them (I have my own site for that, after all), but I couldn’t resist this one.

I’ve also contributed in small part to a discussion involving cathedral_life on the ToothyCat Wiki, which seems to have replaced as the place where the Next Generation of Cambridge geeks hang out. The discussion starts off being about the Historical Jesus, moves on to talk about pigeonholing Christians, and ends up being about how many university CU members leave the faith after they leave university. Interesting stuff.

A locked posting in Another Place asks where morality comes from. So, let’s polish that off in an LJ posting, shall we?

I find something like Ken Macleod’s so-called True Knowledge tempting, at least as a fall back position (as the author of that page says). In the absence of a God, or at least, of one who cares enough to show herself plainly, what matters to you is what matters. If love, charity and loyalty are important to you, you should act to advance them as far as you can. Morality is whatever you can get away with, where “getting away” doesn’t necessarily mean swindling people (although it might, there being no absolutes here), but merely advancing things which you consider good. If enough people agree with you, the power of your argument grows.

<lj-cut> It’s not clear the MacLeod himself thinks the True Knowledge is a good thing (believers in it commit what I’d regard as genocide in his book The Cassini Division). I found some interesting discussion of quite what it is he does think of morality, which makes reference to the True Knowledge idea. Graydon’s views seem particularlty apposite.

Isn’t this the bad old “might makes right” philosophy, which, taken to its logical extension, will lead to us driving around on smoke-belching killing machines while wearing leather and listening to Tina Turner? I’d like to hope not.

My own morality is based on my long term self interest. Being content, finding things out, having friends and loves are all things I enjoy, so I act to maximise my chances of such things persisting. That includes being part of a group and of a society which will allow such things to continue. I’m surely not unique in thinking that the Mad Max war of all against all isn’t going to help further my aims. As Graydon says, power rests of peace.

In Greg Egan’s rather good Distress, there’s an artificial island which floats unsupported in the middle of the ocean (that’s like, a bleedin’ metaphor for existence, you see: keep up at the back). The society on it is one of your standard SF capitalist anarchies, although a little less hard nosed than the sort of thing you find in other authors’ works. The response to the narrator’s question “Why doesn’t someone try to exploit the system and take over?” is amused condescension from the islanders, who point out that that the question amounts to “Why don’t you all try to make your lives as miserable as possible?”

That’s not quite the full story, of course: there are bad people out there, so whatchya gonna do when they come for you? The book’s islanders have their own answer, which I won’t spoil. The sort of biology based ethics which MacLeod seems to have in mind advises being nice to everyone you meet and walloping them if they wallop you. There are people who’ve not worked out that it’s in their own best interests not to be an asshole, but eventually everyone else will move out of their way and defend their walls. I’ve made comments about burbclaves and things of that nature before. As I’ve been talking about Neal Stephenson, what I’m thinking of is more of a phyle (from his book The Diamond Age) than a burbclave, really. It’s not about living with people who all like ballroom dancing, but rather about living with people who share your outlook.

Surfing around the other day, I found a Christian response to Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, in which the author points out that saying Jesus’ belief in hell was immoral presupposes some sort of morality. The same goes for the Problem of Evil: where does your definition of evil come from? In both cases, my answer is that morality comes from within me by the process of considering what I want my life to be about. Ignoring Calvinism (which has huge moral problems of its own), it is my choice whether or not to accept Christianity’s morality. I find the infinite torture of relative innocents to be unjust. There are other people who can accept this idea, and so be a part of the Christian phyle, but I’m not one of them.

I do like the essays of Andrew Rilstone, so it’s good to see a new one. The Ballad of Reading Diocsese is about the last but one gay bishop controversy. You have to like a piece in which the phrase “Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Druid” has a footnote saying “Contravening, it seems to me, the rules about multi-classed characters in the player’s handbook.”

Ivan Gelical: Men can’t touch each other’s willies!

Archdruid: Don’t be silly. Grown men can do whatever they like.

Ivan: Men who touch each other’s willies can’t be bishops!

Archdruid: Really, I think you ought to bring your views up to date.

Ivan: God says so! Jesus says so! The Bible says so!

Archdruid: (annoyed) I don’t care what the Bible says! I don’t care what Jesus says! I don’t care what God says!

Ivan: Ha-ha! So then, you are not a Christian at all!

Archdruid: Drat and double drat, you have caught me out. Truly, you are too clever for us syncretic people. I suppose I will have to let you run the Church from now on.

Ivan: Don’t mind if I do. (Aside) My plan worked. Heretics always make at least one foolish mistake. Would you be interested in coming to my Alpha course? We serve rice salad.

In a good bit of exegesis, Rilstone shows that the fuss made about all this is unwarranted, even if you do follow a fairly evangelical line on the Bible (as well as pointing out that evangelicals aren’t really the literalists or bigots the media make them out to be). He says that, while disapproval of homosexuality has always prevailed among evangelicals (as I recall, Mark Ashton tended to drop references to homosexuality into unrelated sermons as one of the canonical examples of sinful behaviour), similar issues, such as divorce or women priests, have not threatened to divide the church. (Although my cynical side would say that the evangelicals have chosen their ground carefully in picking a sin to which most people are not tempted).

But, he says, the issue has become a sign of a deeper conflict in the Church of England (note for Americans and other aliens: the C of E has an official status in the UK as the established church, involvement in state occasions and so on). On the one side are those who want the church to be a sort of National God Service, providing social programmes and appropriate words and ceremonies in times of national and personal need, using the idea of God to help them in this mission. On the other are those (including the evangelicals) who want it to be a supernatural religion: “Christians say ‘Religion is about contact between Man and the Divine – and by the way, this has lots of implications about how we should behave towards each other’. The National Church says ‘Religion is about how we behave towards each other (justice, tolerance, love) – and, by the way, God can be enormously helpful in getting this right.'”

Rilstone thinks, as do I, that the National Church has watered down Christianity to leave something like Deism. The difference between us is that I can’t believe in what he calls capital-C Christianity. A preacher at StAG once compared the watered down religion of school assemblies (and presumably your standard of C of E church) to an innoculation in childhood which prevents you from getting full blown Christianity as an adult. I imagine the parallel to the ideas of Richard Dawkins was unintentional (“Evangelicalism is a plague, Mister Andurrson. And I am the cure”). I have the opposite experience: I’ve had the full blown version and my immune system rejected it, so nothing else now seems likely to stick.

Rilstone seems a little despondent at the end of the article, facing a choice between the Deism of the National Church and the prejudice of the evangelicals. I hope he works it out somehow.

There’s something nasty out there, changing the DNS settings of Windows machines to point at what look like a couple of Linux boxes on some US hosting service. Best guess is that it’s down to another fricking Windows exploit, one that seems to work via a web page which downloads an executable, which runs itself to change your DNS settings, and then deletes itself. It got me during my lunchtime surf at work, and it seems other people have seen it too. Check your DNS settings before you next use Internet banking, or face the Man in the Middle. Praise Bill!

(I always thought it’d be cool to have a LiveWires course on exploits, as the kids were always keen on Internet stuff: In this worksheet, you will own a poorly configured IIS server, changing the site’s front page to the message “Je5u5 0wnz j00: ph43r G0d”.)

In other news, the dear old Church of England (in fact, the Anglican communion) looks set to split on the gay issue, what with a big meeting of bishops coming up and much sabre rattling on both sides. Bit of a shame, as I can’t help feeling some affection for the old thing, although I suspect that a split church is just what many evangelicals (such as our old friends Reform) are looking for. (Really must get round to responding to livredor‘s latest on that thread, too).

Dancing on Monday was rather man heavy but good fun, although I’m still not sure about the tango from the second lesson. CDC Needs Women! Better yet, ones who won’t sacrifice me to the Invisible Pink Unicorn and the Middle Class (Heterosexual) Dating Club which is Her Body on Earth. But that’s just a weird personal preference of mine. I digress.

More Babylon 5 season 2 on Tuesday. They seem to be getting into their stride a bit now: the bit about Londo’s wives was actually funny, and the foreshadowing is coming along nicely. Bode bode bode…

terriem accompanied me to dinner last night. Thanks to Terrie’s educational skills, I now know the proper definitions of “passive-aggressive” and “perineum”, both of which will stand me in good stead in later life. The conversation turned to religion, and why religions generally regard sex as so significant, how religion is used to oppress women, and so on.

<lj-cut text=”Pens and feathers and all other instruments”> I reckoned that sex is seen as so significant because of the (at the time) almost unbreakable link between it and children. Today I got to thinking about societies where sex is viewed as much less significant, and whether I’d want to live in them. Because of disease and pregnancy, it’s usually science fiction where you’ll find them. (It’s possible some existed in isolation in the past before Europeans turned up with their guns, germs and steel, I suppose). I was thinking specifically of the Culture, the civilisation envisaged by Iain Banks. The Culture’s humans are genetically modified: they don’t get pregnant unless they want to, they can change sex, and they enjoy sex more (there was a great interview with Banks where he said that SF was too geeky and so hadn’t come up with some of the obvious things you could do with GM on humans). Sex isn’t meaningless in the Culture, but it doesn’t usually have the weight attached to it which remains, even today, in our culture.

There are hints in the later books that some parts of the Culture itself think that things are getting too easy for the Culture’s inhabitants (who are the mysterious entities who helped in the attempt to blow up the Orbital in Look to Windward?), but I’d like to disagree with Agent Smith and say that we don’t need suffering to give our lives meaning. If a lot of that significance is because of pregnancy and attendant considerations of disease, hunger, power and inheritance, then if it fades away as we progress away from those considerations, that’s all to the good.

That said, there’s some residual unease in me about such an idea. Remnants of evangelicalism, possibly. I’ll be interested to see where Banks takes the Culture in future books, anyway.