Atheist Ireland is a political lobbying group that promotes “atheism, reason and an ethical, secular state”.
One of the good things about being a lobbying group is that you can use words like “reason” without giving a reason for the word. Never offer me a job with a lobbying group. I’d reduce your press releases down to emoticons, because all the words you want to use are too contested to mean what you want them to say.
My dear friend Eoin O’Mahony came to visit over the weekend. We drank tea and whiskey on sand dunes at 1am. We appalled some drunken Englishers with our lousy literate jokes. We butchered the Doge meme to within an inch of its life. Much laughter. Wow hilarity.
Over tea and cheese on Sunday afternoon, Eoin was explaining how even as Christianity collapses in the West, atheism as a “movement” has failed utterly to build momentum. I had a realisation. Atheist Ireland is the strangest lobby group in Ireland. It might be even more queer than the Iona Institute, to put an old word to fresh use. Allow me to explain.
We could imagine three major aims of Atheist Ireland to be as follows:
- The removal of reference to God from the Constitution.
- The removal of prayer from the beginning of parliamentary proceedings.
- The creation of a primary education system that is secular by default (and only faith-based by exception).
These are all clear, achievable aims for a lobby group. Even better news for Atheist Ireland, they are all distinctively atheist-y.
Or at least they appear that way.
The realisation I made, listening to Eoin, was that if the conversation went the right way, Evangelical Alliance Ireland would wholeheartedly support each of these propositions.
After all, the Constitution needs to be rewritten and reference to God has not made the interpretation of that text in any way more ethical. The same applies with prayer. Of course, worship is a good for Christians, but worship can be empty performance and when TDs pray before creating unjust systems of detention for asylum seekers, tolerate the transport of American torture victims through our airports or burden the next 50 years of citizenry with the private debts accrued by bankers, perhaps the TDs haven’t been praying to the God prayed to in the Magnificat. Finally, evangelical Christians very often forego the standard educational options because the watered-down be-nice-to-your-betters version of Jesus that is taught there leaves a bad taste in their mouth.
So they don’t care if God gets props in the Constitution. They are not impressed by clasped hands that turn immediately to writing venial laws. And they already embrace Educate Together schools.
What good is a secular lobbying group if the Born Agains would show up in support of its campaigns?
Maybe the world is not broken into those with “faith” and those with “reason” after all. Perhaps the world is more complex than Victorian polemics can account for?
Your Correspondent, Bronze Age Sky Fairies LOL
On September 18th, the people of Scotland get to vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom.
Before 1707, Scotland was an independent nation, quite separate from England. It currently has a partially devolved government structure, so many local issues and policies, including some educational matters, are addressed by a Scottish parliament that meets in Edinburgh:
I don’t want to bore you with a detailed argument for each of these but here are some of the reasons everyone should consider joining me in voting yes:
An independent Scotland will be:
- Legistlatively better placed.
- Politically better placed.
- Financially better placed.
- Environmentally better placed.
- Culturally better placed.
- Socially better placed.
- Historically better placed.
All these things are true and all these things have been argued all over the place. For many people here it is currently an equation about money and in that scenario, a Scotland able to arrange its own policies on mineral wealth, set its own tax rates and able to adapt as a small, flexible, mature democracy in a globalised economy is going to be better off.
But the specific reason why Christians should vote yes has nothing to do with the rich traditions of Scottish culture that are very different from England or even the fact that a yes vote is just a reversion to the historical norm or the secret reason that takes up a large space of my reasoning which is that it is a new thing and new things are exciting.
No. The reason Christians should vote yes is simple.
Submarines. Tanks. Jet planes. Soldiers. War.
Sorry to beat a drum, but I live in a country where men are trained to beat drums while other men march off to war. The Scottish people don’t like this but because of historical circumstances, they find themselves part of the most war-hungry state in all of history. There are only 22 nations on planet Earth today, out of over 200, which the United Kingdom has not invaded.
In my lifetime, Scotland has gone to war with Argentina, Iraq, Afghanistan and then Iraq a second time. Scotland has deployed military assets (meaning men who were trained to kill people and destroy things) in the former Yugoslav states, in Sierra Leone and in Pakistan. Scottish income tax has gone towards the development of the largest spying network in history and subsidises the most heavily surveilled population in the world (yes – the UK is now officially much more committed to surveilling its citizenry than East Germany ever was).
Scotland is the base for the British navy, including nuclear submarines and the fleet that can carry nuclear weaponry. The Highlands is a common place where their jets are tested and their pilots trained. Their council estates are one of the chief recruitment centres for the infantry.
If you are resident in this country and you think the invasion of the Falkland Islands was stupid, that Desert Storm was questionable, that Afghanistan was confusing and that the current occupation of Iraq was scandalous, then for God’s sake and the sake of the world, vote yes.
You don’t have to be a pacifist. You just have to recognise that this state of constant war and fear and threat, with non-stop talk of terror plots and cameras watching you by the side of the road everywhere you go is not the right way to live. An independent Scotland won’t be pure in the face of this violent culture. Scottish boys will still be lured away to fight in the British Army, attracted by the video games they have habitually played and the glossy television ads they’ll see. Scottish manufacturers will still cast bullets and make vacuum packed nutrition pouches and camouflaged buttons that the English armies will buy. If Allied victims can suffer rendition via Irish airports (which is what has repeatedly happened), then the likelihood is that Scottish runways will be likewise implicated in this nefarious practice.
But a vote for yes is a vote for never having to on an anti-war march again to convince YOUR politicians not to go to war. After all, YOUR politicians didn’t want to go to war and the London government still over-ruled them.
Christians can take a range of positions on war, just like they take a range of positions on nationalism or capitalism or Breaking Bad. But Christians are agreed that war is bad. Sometimes, some people are convinced it is necessary but nobody was convinced the last 30 years of conflict was needed. All of it was a sham. And not for one second did that make it any safer.
Christians should vote yes for Scottish independence.
Your Correspondent, Believes that all anyone really wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich.
I had the experience tonight of meeting someone for the first time and the conversation turned towards war. I did not turn it that way. It is surprising, when you pay attention, how often conversations turn to war.
In the course of this conversation it became known to all involved that I was a pacifist. As is usual, I was the only one. And as is usual, a man proceeded to assail me with a line of conversation predicated on the assumption that my conviction is:
We will leave aside the inherent irrationality of destroying things, including life, with the hope of gain, the impracticality of blowing things up as a political method and the questionable wisdom of putting fellow citizens’ lives at risk to defend the integrity/pride/borders/honour of a nation state. Instead, we will consider the fact that once this person’s laser eyes turned on me, I realised what I was in for.
New ‘Friend’: “You say you are a pacifist, but what would you do if it was YOUR children?”
Kevin: “Ha ha ha. Good question. I don’t have children. So how’s about that local sports team?”
New ‘Friend’: “But if you had someone who was pointing a gun at your wife, would you just let them shoot?”
Kevin: “I’ll tell you who I wouldn’t let shoot! Clint Eastwood. He is a good film man, ain’t he, buddy??”
New ‘Friend’: “Imagine this. My wife is tied up, my children are at the mercy of an intruder. You would say I don’t have a right to defend them?”
Kevin: “I would prefer not to imagine this. Do you know how weird it is that you are asking me to think about such horrendous things. And for what it is worth, as a Christian, I don’t do quandary ethics. I think ethics is about living a rich, flourishing life, not about solving problems. I can’t tell you what you can do, but I know how my wife and I want to live our lives, informed by Jesus.”
New ‘Friend’: “You see! You see! This is why you pacifists are so irrational. No! More! You are immoral! I consider it my moral obligation in that situation to defend my people, even violently. Even LETHALLY!”
As he rants, Kevin leaves, thinking that Stanley Hauerwas is right when he says that for Christians there are things worse than death. For example, having to listen to just war folk try to convert you to the Good News of people dying.
Your Correspondent, He is a stabbing robot
This is a question I invariably get asked when I talk to Christians about my thesis.
When you asked me that question, I internally rolled my eyes.
It isn’t that the question doesn’t matter. Of course, I want to develop practices that allow us to root out the ways we trust Mammon instead of YHWH. But the question is always front-loaded in the conversation because we trust Mammon instead of YHWH. After all, one of the ways we can see how Mammon works on us is our almost metaphysical assumption that reality will provide us with alternatives. If Coke isn’t our thing, there’s Pepsi. If Kia don’t do the job, there’s Hyundai. And if capitalism is awry, then we are trained by capitalism to expect an alternative. That training means that when an alternative isn’t provided, you are not being serviced and you can take your attention on to someone who values it more appropriately. Gladly, capitalism and the marketplace are not reality (even though they are both very real) and in reality it is sufficient to make a diagnosis (the way we have constructed our economies do not match with the Kingdom of God) without being able to offer a cure.
Only in the absurdity of late-Capitalism does the cure precede the diagnosis, such as when pharmaceutical companies synthesize the drug and then have to invent the disease it treats.
Maybe the best we can hope for right now is that we can diagnose what is wrong with the market and yet still be forced to live within it. This would require a patience that Capitalism cannot easily turn to profit. But naming the wrongness we live within also sets on us a course to name other things properly and thus, to free ourselves from our deceptions. Capitalism makes jobs, we say. Apart from all the housing estates where it doesn’t. Capitalism is the machine of innovation, we say. Ignoring whether the things we “innovate” are worth anything except profit. Capitalism serves justice, we say. But whose justice is it serving?
Capitalism is not inevitable. Neither is it fit for purpose. Capitalism must change or die or be killed and one of those things will happen. The internal contradictions (a fancy way of saying the dark corners where nothing makes sense and great harm is done) are too great. It will pull itself apart or be torn asunder trying to keep itself together. What’s the alternative? It’s the same it has always been. Acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God.
Your Correspondent, Remembers that revenge is profitable but gratitude is expensive.
I find it difficult to even comprehend the scale of the property bubble in Ireland. For the sake of putting it somewhere, here is one way I try to think about it. This is not an original way, but the numbers are appropriately shocking.
On page 43 of the Annual Housing Statistics Bulletin published by the Irish Department for Environment, Heritage and Local Government, we find listed the completion rates for new houses from 2004 to 2008. With some basic sums we find that over five year period, Ireland built, on average, 76,216 new houses.
In Live Table 209 (Permanent dwellings completed, by tenure and country), published by the British Department for Communities and Local Government we find that in the same period in England, on average there were 159,714 new builds, annually.
So in the period when the bubble really grew, Ireland built almost half as many houses as England (47.7%).
But Ireland’s population is about 4.5 million and England’s is about 63 million. 4.5 is not 47% of 63.
England’s economy was also growing at this time. England’s property market was also over-heated at this time. And yet proportionately, Ireland was building 7 times more houses than their close neighbour.
That, my friends, is a world-beating property boom.
Your Correspondent, He lived in a house, a very big house in the country
My PhD supervisor Brian Brock rarely writes things on the Internet. My effort to spread the rumour around campus that he spends his evenings developing an intricately detailed fan-fiction crossover universe between Kafka’s The Trial and 50 Shades of Grey has so far floundered.
Tonight however he has uploaded something for the dozens to read. It is partially a review of Dave Eggers’ most recent novel and partly a discussion of how the technological trends we all get so excited by are not randomly occurring phenomena. The powers that power the “social media revolution” have intention behind the societal trends they foster. Facebook, Twitter and even Creideamh serve to make us better consumers.
After all, in the paragraph above I pointed you to the Dave Eggers book on a “shelf” in a digital bookshop.
The reason a theologian is writing about this is that the technological vision of a utopia of transparency is in fact a warped, parasitic imitation of the ancient Hebrew idea: “the fear of the Lord”:
For past Christians it was much easier to spot the mechanisms whereby the “fear of men” operated. Things were clear cut for Daniel when the king’s demand was to bow down and worship his image, or when the early Christians were asked to prove their loyalty to the gods of Rome by blaspheming Jesus Christ. The early martyrs knew what it meant to fear God and not men, a tradition clearly still alive in the theology of the Reformation. As Luther put it , “I am not to fear the judge or love the judge; but my fear and my trust are to be in someone else beyond the judge, namely, in God, who is my real judge. I ought to respect and honor the civil judge, who is the mask of God, for the sake of God. But my conscience dare not repose its trust in his justice; nor dare it be intimidated by his tyranny.”
We, however, are experiencing the birth of a new era, in which the old mechanisms of instilling the fears and the desires for approval are intentionally being made more subtle.
Your Correspondent, Wise, like a genetically-manipulated shark.
In 1869, Friedrich Engels visited Ireland with his new wife. He liked it. He later wrote:
The weather, like the inhabitants, has a more acute character, it moves in sharper, more sudden contrasts; the sky is like an Irish woman’s face: here also rain and sunshine succeed each other suddenly and unexpectedly and there is none of the grey English boredom.
- Friedrich Engels, “History of Ireland” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels On Ireland (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 184.
And earlier he wrote of the “wily old fox” Daniel O’Connell:
How much could be achieved if a sensible man possessed O’Connell’s popularity, or if O’Connell had a little more sense and a little less egoism and vanity! Two hundred thousand men, and what kind of men! Men who have nothing to lose, two-thirds of them not having a shirt to their backs, they are real proletarians and sansculottes, and moreover Irishmen – wild, headstrong, fanatical Gaels. If one has not seen the Irish, one does not know them. Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I would overthrow the entire British monarchy.
- Friedrich Engels, “Letters from London” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels On Ireland (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 33.
Your Correspondent, Sheer greed is the driving spirit of his civilization
Having spent a few months reading about Irish banks, it is always funny to me (genuinely amusing, thankfully, instead of being infuriating) how banking regulation operates on different levels. If I was about to invest millions in a shady casino, my bank manager would meet me for lunch in the best restaurant in town and make sure everything runs smoothly for me. When I want to lodge a cheque made out in Euros, I have to manually fill in a six page form detailing everything short of my favourite Radiohead album and then in two or three weeks I can access the money.
I was enjoying this simple form filling exercise a few days ago. It was a welcome respite from reading Schleiermacher. The bank official was engaging me in unusually friendly levels of Aberdonian small-talk and I found out she had a PhD in the hard sciences. I asked her, with the tact of a man trained in pastoral care, why the hell would she be working in this den of thieves and moral imbeciles? She said that long-term, she’d make much more money here. Then she went and found more forms, stamped them in triplicate, tapped a few commands on her keyboard and was able to move on to the next customer’s inane financial needs.
If we wound the clock back and found ourselves in the 1850s, we would have to convince the citizens of Aberdeen or Dublin or Portland that the world of the future contains such tremendous excess.
“We can travel pretty much wherever we want in an hour. You can get across the city and out into the farms in fifteen minutes. And by the way, the cities are MUCH bigger now. Hundreds of thousands, even millions of people.”
“All of us can communicate with all our loved ones any time of day or night. It costs practically nothing and there are a myriad of ways to do it. The postal service still flourishes of course, but now it brings us groceries and toys as well as letters and invoices. The messages fly through the air invisibly or run along cables in the ground that we effortlessly laid and barely even consider.”
“We have medicines to cure everything. Well, an irritable bowel is still untreatable but we can even sometimes cure cancer. We can anticipate diseases before they happen. And in most parts of the western world, this care tends to be universally available.”
“We eat meat everyday if we want.”
Here’s the thing. Having painted a picture of cars and bikes and segways, phones and laptops and Amazon, paracetemol, chemotherapy and teeth whitening, having described our wealth so accurately that they are salivating at the prospect of blueberries all year round and fruits they have never heard of, they might come to believe that your account is true.
But how hard would it be for them to then imagine that in this world where food and medicine and transport and communication are all readily available, the bright young things of such a society would want to work more, to earn more, to get more?
Somewhere along the way we lost the sense of Enough. That thought is so commonplace it is becoming cliché. I don’t mean to get all moralistic, like an unfunny version of Louis C.K., I just want to point out that there was a time before the time we now live, where self-interest has become a monetary concern. My father cannot imagine a life he could have lived where he would do what his youngest sons are doing – move to dark cities far away to spend years doing nothing except read books and think ideas through to their end. This bank teller lives in an amazing time to be human and has benefited by having an amazing grasp of what scientifically makes us human, but she’s wearing a uniform, stamping paper and doing the things my dad feared he might have to do in the 1960s. But its ok because they’ll eventually give her enough money to buy a Mercedes instead of a Kia.
Your Correspondent, The money isn’t even resting in my account
When we think of the economic vision of the Old Testament, if we think of it at all, we jump to just how crazy it is.
If you are unfamiliar with it, the Israelite Law, which they believed was given to them by God, covered all aspects of life, from what to wear, to what to eat, to what to do with money. In that book that you have probably heard of, but never read, Leviticus, there exists an economic theory so radical and so random that if modern people encounter it at all, they just shake their heads and say, “How strange primitive people are!”
To understand the Law, you have to go back to the beginning. The God of Israel, who the Israelites insisted is the only God, rested on the seventh day of his creating. In the Biblical view of the universe, work is the time that happens around rest.
The Law clearly stated, repeatedly, that the Israelites were to embody an image of their God by copying his rest and one day a week were to set down their tools and enjoy the creation.
In Leviticus 25, this concept of Sabbath rest becomes the basis for an entire economics. The Israelites have been enslaved for four hundred years by the Pharaohs. God is bringing them into a land where they will find rest from their toil. The slaves who were worked to death will become a nation that never works without first resting. The Sabbath after all, is the first day of the week. They rest, then they work. You don’t earn your rest. It is the way of things.
Leviticus 25 takes the idea and systematically extends it in every direction. Just as the human rests every seven days, the land is to rest every seven years. Just as the land rests, the culture rests too. On the seventh Sabbath year, every fifty years, all work is to cease. In what must be the most revolutionary economic idea any culture has yet envisaged, verse 10 announces:
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you!
The Jubilee year is a reset button on all the accumulation and consumption that has occurred in the previous generations. Whatever land that has been bought must be returned to the ones who owned it at the last Jubilee. Whatever debts that have been built up must be erased. All of them. Whoever works for you to pay off a debt is to be released upon Jubilee. You are to return to your ancestral land and for the year live with your extended family, neither planting nor reaping and certainly not warring because the nation rests on the Sabbath of Sabbath-years, enjoys God’s good creation and the liberty that has been secured for Israel.
The Levitical Law, that subject of scorn and ridicule today, from people who choose not to read it nevermind consider it, is in fact a masterpiece of revolutionary thinking. How do you prevent a nation of freed slaves from being slavers? Leviticus is the answer. It is a densely woven mandate for creating a culture that will be impervious to the enslaving ways of the world.
Thus, the Jubilee chapter isn’t some random collection of Bronze Age thoughts. It is an invitation to live out the call that made Israel a nation – the people set free by YHWH, set free to be free.
Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God. …
I, God, will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. …
The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. …
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. …
Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. …
The Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
In our sophisticated modern world we run lotteries so that people who are functionally innumerate can dream that their lives will be transformed by the provision of fate. But then we consider Leviticus 25 and decide it is lunacy to imagine that a people could trust their lives on the provision of YHWH.
In the 21st Century we not only ignore the prohibition against interest, we establish it as the cornerstone of our society. We charge people money for the use of money, clouding the reality with talk of opportunity cost, efficiency and lost profitability, while declaring imaginary the economic system of the Jubilee which insists that humanity is a family.
We bet on stocks in a market we don’t understand issued for companies we don’t understand who make products we don’t understand and that sell them in ways we don’t understand. We then let other people bet against those stocks with products nobody understands and that don’t really exist. We trust this system to make our time-clocks tick and our pay cheques cash. Meanwhile, we laugh at Leviticus because we dare not even comprehend a system so complex that actual families would be seen as more permanent than fictive financial arrangements.
Jubilee is an economic system built around three principles. First, everything is owned by God. Therefore, human ownership is always temporary. Secondly, humans are natively prone to exploit and destroy other humans and so we need to build societies that make the accumulation of power difficult. Thirdly, an individual human’s flourishing cannot be understood independent of the other humans, animals, soil and time that they live in. Everything is connected.
You can’t convert our current arrangement to a Jubilee arrangement. No one is proposing that. All historical evidence suggests that Israel itself never lived up to its calling. But when Jesus shows up in his home-town synagogue in Nazareth, he uses the Hebrew Scriptures to declare that in him, God’s Jubilee has come.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
I was asked recently what Leviticus 25 has to say about our contemporary economic system. In terms of practical steps towards reform, Jubilee offers little insight. It seems to me that it says reform is not where Christians ought to base their hopes. Jubilee was never meant to be enacted by the nations of the world. It was the calling of קהל יִשְׂרָאֵל the assembly of YHWH, which in Greek becomes ekklesia tou Theou, which in English means the called-out ones of God.
Jubilee doesn’t show us how the EU should reform banking. It doesn’t offer us a theory for how the IMF should intervene in crises. It does describe how the church should conduct its affairs. Jubilee is the soil in which we declare there is one God who is God, that His Creation is good and that His creatures are made to be free.
How do we start doing that? That’s the conversation we are meant to be having.
Your Correspondent, One time he laughed at a blind guy eating spaghetti!
The cult of capitalism will die this way; first as comedy and then as farce. But it will feel like it takes forever.
It is not even close to the greatest Scorcese has done but that makes this obscene, stylish and finely acted film something that could be damn impressive in the long-term.
Like, even longer than the never-ending running time.
Your Correspondent, You buy until you die.