Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Godwin's Law

Mike Godwin is an attorney and effective advocate for free speech online. He's also known for Godwin's Law which states:
"As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."
All day long I've been kicking myself for leaving a comment on a post at Phil Jones' essential blog Composing. I conclude that seeing my comment as idiotic he simply didn't post it: Thanks very much Phil.

It's not the first time I've said something stupid on the Internet, and probably won't be the last. But I find this gaffe particularly egregious because there were no comments and I lead not by comparison to Nazis but to Fascism and that's close enough. I'm so amazed that I didn't immediate recognise my fallacy of reductio ad Nazium.

Phil points to a video of former Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast. The National Prayer Breakfast is organized by The Fellowship Foundation.

Religion in American life is apparently a subject that makes me a little crazy, even falling into conspiracy theories. Of course conspiracies sometimes exist, but most reasonable people are surely correct to be skeptical about conspiracy theories which attribute complex cultural and political events to an underlying conspiracy theory.

Phil makes the point:
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what a politician believes in private. But the moment he or she starts letting their ungrounded faith guide their actions, it's time to get them out of office.
The point has merit, I'm all in favor of reason, and I think reason is what Phil is positing in opposition to "ungrounded faith." The essence of Phil's point is reason provides some defense against errors resulting from faith. The trouble is I'm not sure how really reasonable any of us really are. Acting by faith provides a sort of economy of effort we really don't do without; it's not just religious faith. Something very much like faith seems at the root of the current financial crisis. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is really smart in helping us see how easily we all can be fooled by randomness, and how distruptive black swan events are.

What Taleb is talking about seems related to the problem of faith generally. Phil is talking more specifically about religious faith. I am not a theist, that is one who believes God as the creator of the universe. But I probably can't claim that I'm an atheist, or at least many atheist wouldn't claim me. The trouble I have is both with the meanings of god and belief.

Recently The New Scientist published an article Born believers: How your brain creates God. the article points to studies which suggest that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works." In other words that people in general have a tendency towards supernatural thinking. That sure rings true to me! Also in that issue the editors posted an editorial which they linked to the previous article, The credit crunch could be a boon for irrational belief with the quite sensible argument that we ought "to be careful." And that caution is very much in line with Phil's post.

What sent me over the edge in my comment essentially suggesting that Tony Blair and his Tony Blair Foundation are hawking a version of Fascism? First it should be noted that this really is over the edge and in sharp contrast to Phil's reasoned arguments. The truthful answer is that I'm not sure. I am well aware that reductio ad Nazium is a fallacy, and that my use of that suggests a blind spot which would be good of me to examine so to perhaps help me avoid making a fool of myself in the future.

My last two posts on social networks made me feel kind of stupid too. I think social networks are important and also hard to understand. It's good to try to understand what they look like and how they work because they are important. But it's also important to recognize that networks are complicated so not to be too quick to assume I understand what's happening.

All over the world there are networks of associations which figure significantly in how power is exercised. We talk about "old boy networks" and "good old boy networks." The former referring especially to public school affiliation in Britain, and the "good old boys" a term more American and not so closely aligned with schools. Religious affiliations do seem to me a strong contributor to these American "good old boys" networks. The Fellowship, or The Family, has in it's history traditions of secretiveness, which lends itself to conspiratorial theories. Jeffery Sharlet's investigative report at Harpers, Jesus plus nothing: Undercover among America's secret theocrats provides some background. There is also within the traditions of the organization certain tendencies familiar to Fascist movements. And Chip Berlet's What is Fascism? provides some definition of what Fascism is.

In the USA The Fellowship is hardly alone as a Christian network that insinuates itself into halls of power in somewhat secretive ways. We American tend to be religious, as everyone knows. I'm not sure how all these various networks operate, but it's hard to miss the fact that networks do exist and exert some influence on governments.

Sharlet's piece mentions connections with the Fellowship and Uganda's president Museveni. I look at Ugandan news some, and as an outsider I can hardly claim to understand. Nevertheless occasionally news reports which feature connections between very right wing American representatives and various Evangelical Christian groups make me wonder what's really going on. I'm not sure I can ever really find out either.

It appalls me that Pat Robertson is still a respected figure in American politics. His association and support for former Guatemalan dictator Gen. Rios Montt discredited him in my eyes. A rather similar set of circumstances with Robertson's business dealings with Liberia's Charles Taylor made my blood boil.

There are lots of atrocities associated with religions of all sorts. I don't think anyone denies that. Indeed such atrocities are brought up as arguments against religious belief. But most of the people I truly love are religious. I think there's quite a bit to the New Scientist article that religious belief seems a sort of "default" position in our psyche. I think humanity's ties to religion are deep, even for irreligious folks like me. So when Blair and others, for example Karen Armstrong and her move for A Charter For Compassion, aver that religion should be a force for good in the world, I'm sympathetic. I'm sure that's possible, just as I'm sure religion is sometimes a force for bad.

Phil's post suggest that voters in democracy should demand reason of our politicians. I'm sure he's right, that is desirable. I'm not sure that personal religious beliefs really can be separated from our guides to actions so neatly. Phil goes on to note that part of the problem with religious faith guiding actions is that such faith inhibits learning. That religious belief can contain a strain of vanity leading to ill-conceived actions. Blair in his speech remarks:
It is that humbling of man's vanity, that stirring of conscience through God's prompting, that recognition of our limitations, that faith alone can bestow.
No question humility is in order; the only question is what prompts it?

In the news Blair has been awarded a million dollar prize "presented by the Dan David Foundation, based at Tel Aviv University." He'll give the money to his foundation. But if one accepts, as I do, that humility is good in the face of human vanity, the source of humility Phil suggests is probably going to be more effective in terms of keeping Blair vanity in check than faith ever will be!

The Tony Blair Foundation urges religious tolerance. I'm not sure sufficiently so. I'm trouble by the networking approach familiar to The Fellowship, Young Life, Intervarsity Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, and many other Christian organizations closely associated with hard right politics in the USA. Chris Hedges is an American journalist, author and student of Christian theology. He's a Christian who argues forcefully against religious Chauvinism and Fascism. Christianity and rightist politics don't have to go hand in hand.

I think I went over board when I saw that Tony Blair was addressing the National Prayer Breakfast. I'm sure Blair is aware of the rightwing cant of the Fellowship. I'm also sure he knows that Americans of various political stripes attend the meetings. So his remarks were knowingly political. And the politics of it is suspect to me. I also find the decision to accept the million dollar prize from Israel politically suspect for someone so engaged in peace advocacy in the Middle East. It's unreasonable for me to accuse Blair of Fascism, but not unreasonable to notice dangerous mixing of politics and his religious views--A point Phil manages quite succinctly.

Phil also worries about Obama years down the line. But Obama's recent handling of religion and politics seems hardly encouraging to me. That's a subject for another time. But to end this post I'll point to an online magazine called Religious Dispatches it's a thoughtful publication promoting understanding of religious forces in today's world. Understanding is something I could use much more of.

Photo Source: Mike Godwin by Alice Lipowicz CC 2.5 from Wikipedia.


BlairSupporter said...

Just wanted to tell you I enjoyed this post. Modest, and humble, it has a tone many in the mainstream press might emulate (if only they understood the meaning of the words "modest" and "humble".)

I too have concerns about the faith in faith business. Possibly because I too do not feel 'the presence' which presumably those of faith DO feel.

Still I'm humble enough to realise I might be wrong. Perhaps I haven't been "touched" because I'm not as worthy as some. Having said that I do find it difficult (in all modesty!) to work out what I could have done to have been considered unworthy. Perhaps it was something I did in one of those 'previous lives' people sometimes refer to.

As a great supporter of Tony Blair I DO think he is a good man and means well to all peoples. And if he has faith, which he has, and through that channel thinks he can rach others on an empathetic level, the best of luck to him.

Some people of faith certainly need to be reached.

Many thanks for the article.

Good stuff.

DaisyDeadhead said...

I dunno if you ever read my Black Swan post. But it always makes me think of that Asimov story.

Bonus: Thom Yorke!