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July 1, 2017 43 comments

Long before social media, long before Islamic terrorism, King Solomon noted that it’s not difficult to recruit people for violence:
“A violent person entices their neighbour
and leads them down a path that is not good.” (Proverbs 16:29)
There are many possible reasons for this. Violence is fun (if you’re not on the receiving end); violence gets quick results (e.g. mugging); violence wins you admiration. The temptation to jump onto the bandwagon is therefore strong – and without at least an equally strong cultural pull in the other direction, few can resist it.

Throughout human history, certain forms of violence have been legitimised, and all cultures have had their particular preferences. The inhabitants of the Roman Empire enjoyed gladiatorial battles (to the death) as a good afternoon’s entertainment; and for a bit of variety, one or two Christians might be eaten by wild beasts in front of an audience of thousands. We consider ourselves more ‘civilised’ now – but boxing and other martial arts continue to flourish, despite the constant stream of injuries that they produce. Violence in films seems if anything to be on the increase: at my local cinema this week, five out of the eight films being shown contain scenes of violence. Does the fact that it’s not ‘real’ somehow make it OK? We can enjoy watching murder, war and other forms of mayhem, knowing that nobody is actually getting seriously hurt. And most of us are not induced to copy what we see… but a few are.

But it is when violence is justified by an ideology that it becomes truly epidemic. Nations have often gone to war with terrifying cheerfulness, convinced that God was on their side. Mediaeval popes whipped up enthusiasm for their crusades by issuing free indulgences to participants. The guerrilla and the terrorist not only experience the ‘normal’ gratifications of violent behaviour, but also have the satisfaction of believing that they have contributed to a noble cause. Add in a sense of ‘belonging’ and comradeship, and you have a proven recipe for recruitment. The path is well-trodden here; the problem of radicalisation is not specific to Islam, but has its roots in our basic human nature.

Violence often looks like the ideal solution to a perceived problem. But what are the long-term results? The trouble is that neither life nor history come in self-contained episodes; we are always travelling “down a path”, and what we do now will inevitably have consequences later on (sometimes much later on). In our own culture, we have some shining examples of the good that can be achieved by non-violent protest (one thinks of the successful political campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King in the last century). Is there anything comparable in Islamic culture? “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) has proved difficult enough for Christians to put into practice; yet there is nothing that even comes close to it in the Qur’an. This makes the actions of Imam Mohammed Mahmoud (in defending a man who had just run a van into a group of Muslims leaving a prayer meeting) all the more noteworthy. Let us hope and pray that his example will lead many others down a good path.

Categories: General

Some thoughts on politics

July 8, 2016 11 comments

Over the last few weeks we have witnessed an unprecedented upheaval in British politics. Who would have thought that something as simple as a referendum would have had such an effect? Party leaders (and would-be leaders) have been falling like dominoes. Currencies and stock markets have been swaying in the political wind. Is this the end of the world as we know it?

In times like these, our ship needs a captain with experience, nerve and determination. Someone who is prepared for bad weather and knows how to cope with it. But our leaders have failed us. The Prime Minister has resigned; the Leader of the Opposition has been rendered impotent by the mutiny of his crew. The ship is dead in the water while we wait for someone to actually take charge.

The problems began during the campaign, when they didn’t treat the voters as intelligent adults. We weren’t given cool calm opinions, let alone facts, on which to base our decision-making. Instead, we had dire warnings of disaster that nobody could take seriously. And some of us actually thought: if you can’t make a better case than that, then your side is probably rubbish.

And then they didn’t seem to realise that a referendum is not like an election. If you lose an election, you don’t have to implement the winning policies. But you have to implement the result of a referendum whether you like it or not. And the Remainers were so confident that they would win that they didn’t make a contingency plan… Big mistake, but understandable. What has shocked so many of us is that the Brexiters apparently didn’t have a plan either. So now nobody knows what to do – and as a result, some of those prophecies of disaster may become self-fulfilling.

For some time I’ve been wondering why I’ve become so disenchanted with politics. Now I know why.

Categories: Politics Tags: ,

Reading the Bible

January 1, 2011 57 comments

So the Archbishop of Canterbury would like everyone to read the King James Bible “in order to get the Big Picture”.

If he were encouraging everyone to read the Bible (version not specified), I would be in wholehearted agreement. But why the King James Bible? It’s true that the translation commissioned by James I of England 400 years ago has been enormously influential over British culture. And any book that is still being read 400 years after its first publication must have something going for it. The problem is that it is, well, 400 years old. And although it still has a vociferous fan club in the higher strata of the Church of England, the rest of the church (not to mention the other denominations) has moved on – and for good reason. For one thing, although the translation was the best that could be done at the time, many more (and older) New Testament manuscripts have been discovered since – so the modern Bible versions are much closer to what was originally written. (Admittedly, there haven’t been very many changes; and the vast majority are trivial)

More importantly, Read more…

Near death experiences

April 10, 2010 44 comments

Recent scientific evidence suggests that what are popularly called “near death experiences” are not anything of the kind, but rather a product of high carbon dioxide levels in the blood.

 Personally, I’ve always been sceptical about the religious interpretation of these experiences, for two reasons. One is that my mother had several “near death experiences” as a child – every time she had an anaesthetic at the dentist’s surgery. The other is that people who have these experiences always explain them in terms of their pre-existing beliefs: Protestants for example will say they have met Jesus, while Catholics seem more likely to meet Mary. Presumably this is because the brain tries to “make sense” of what it perceives, and it does so by drawing on its previous “knowledge”. But nobody ever changes their beliefs as a result: atheists remain atheists, even after what would appear to be a pretty close encounter with the Almighty. Which suggests to me that they haven’t actually come anywhere near Him at all.

(this post has also been published on MyT)

Categories: Religion Tags: