Are you comfortably numb?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Editorial 7 Issue 1299

Organised Religion and why we hate it so much

There are a number of phrases that get bandied around with great aplomb (or dare I say it, arrogance?), without meaning much. I think "organised religion" is one of these. Ever heard someone say something similar to this: "There could be a higher being out there, but I'm totally against organised religion"? We seem to swallow such affirmations eagerly without really questioning what we mean.

The danger, with this as with any expression that becomes devoid of real significance, is that we allow it to conjure up a set of emotions within us that are unrelated to any critical thought process. The phrase "organised religion" is now heavy with negative connotations, which is doubtless why so many people seem intent on being "against" it. But what is organised religion? And why is it such a bad thing?

There are at least four reasons why people might declare that "organised religion" is bad. First, they see it as coercing, or forcing people into joining an organisation (there's a clue for you) against their will. Think of the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Catholics and Protestants in Tudor Britain or the tax imposed on Christians in Egypt for centuries because they would not convert to Islam. Second, organised religion has been known to assert unduly strong political force. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church controlled large parts of Europe. The convergence between Church and State in Britain, although now weakened, was a point against which the founders of the United States reacted with their constitutional separation of the two entities. Third, it is indisputable that religious conflict has been responsible for countless atrocities. The Crusades spring most rapidly to people's minds; now, the situation in Sudan (and now, more specifically, Darfur). Fourth, it has been a tragic historical theme that religion has exploited the poor, usually based on a kind of emotional blackmail that leads people to believe they are jeopardising their spiritual or indeed physical well-being if they do not give to "God", funnily enough, through the Church. This is still the case in Brazil, where millions of poverty-stricken families are convinced that if they buy expensive ornaments from the Catholic or Evangelical Churches, they will experience material blessing.

Yes, "organised religion" has much to answer for. But is this because it is organised, because it is religion, or because it involves human beings, who are less than perfect? There are many irreligious organisations who have committed myriad atrocities: the regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot come to mind.

Is it bad because it is religion? But it is obvious that there are many religious organisations that do good. In Britain, Booth and Barnardo tackled the issues of poverty and street children. Elizabeth Fry worked for prison reform. Shaftesbury campaigned to stop child labour. Wilberforce helped abolish slavery. These people were all Christians; in fact, their social concern sprung from their Christianity. By being against any type of organised religion, one would have to condemn these examples.

Yes, sometimes religion has been distorted to justify sinister ends; but this is the case with most ideologies. Millions were killed for the satisfaction of one man in the name of Communism, a far cry from what Marx and Engels advocated. Could it be the case that fallible human beings are to blame, rather than religion itself? Is not religion just one more thing that is used by wicked humans to justify their own ends?

Crucially, what do we mean by "organised" anyway? Obviously an organisation like the Catholic Church is falls into the category. But what of a group of Muslim women that meet in the same place at the same time to pray? If two Christians meet up to do a Bible study, is this then wrong because they are organising something? Call a spade a spade: if you're against the Church of England, by all means say so and explain why, but don't let that morph into a generalised hatred of "organised religion".

Condemning organised religion logically equates into only allowing people to hold beliefs if they keep them to themselves, and do not consciously associate with anyone else who shares these beliefs. This is ridiculous, as I hope anyone can see. More seriously, it translates into prohibition of freedom of association, something I'm sure the same people who decry organised religion would hold dearly to if it came to, I don't know: an anti-war protest, for example.

So by being against organised religion, what are we saying? Are we against all organisation, because organised entities can commit wrong more extensively than individuals? Or are we actually relinquishing the right to freedom of association throughout society, simply because it's cool to hate God and whoever loves him? Religion is a soft target. But if you aim at it you must follow it through logically. Condemn organised religion, and you're striking a blow at the doctrine of civil liberty.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Counting our blessings

3 things that have encouraged me this week:

1) This link, which I know lots of people have appreciated. It's so cool!

2) I'm going through Search the Scriptures and this is what I learnt from a reading earlier in the week, from the end of the first block of Genesis:
Genesis 25:28 - 'Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob'
Genesis 26:2-5 - 'The LORD appeared to Isaac and said... Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and wil give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.'
Genesis 26:7-10 - Isaac copies his father and lies to Abimelech about Rebekah being his wife, telling him she is his sister.
Genesis 26:12-13 - 'Isaac planted crops... and reaped a hundred old, because the LORD blessed him. The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy.'

Okay, so what's my point? That God's grace is so outrageous that our human minds can't comprehend it, and I think that's why we beat ourselves up so much. Isaac mucks up and in response, God just blesses him more. How many times do we berate ourselves for not doing our quiet time, for speaking in the wrong way to someone, for getting angry? And yes, we should repent for these things, but we should remember that God blesses because he chooses to bless, not because we deserve it. God does not bless because of our character but because of HIS character. Even though we know this in our heads, do we really live it? Or do we still subconsciously act like we have to earn his blessing? If we do, we must stop - by acknowledging how much grace he pours out we will give him more glory, and be entirely satisfied in him.

3) It's amazing that even when you're going through a section of Scripture in order each day, God can still pull out lessons that are so relevant to that particular moment. I've moved on to Luke now, still with STS. Over the last couple of days I've been really struggling with an essay I have to do on Hegel, and last night I completely lost sight of any kind of logical thought process and just got in a big strop about how I didn't think I could do it, and life in general (sorry Aidan). Got up this morning, and guess what the Bible reading was?
Luke 10:25-42... specifically,

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."


Kind of puts my essay (and life) in perspective!

So, the conclusion is basically that God is awesome, relevant and unrelentingly gracious!

I have Skype now by the way, if you have it, my name on it is rebecca.king1985 :)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Editorial 6 Issue 1298

Hello everyone. The editorial this week was really rubbish and quite frankly, bore relevance to almost nothing. But that is what comes of having several essays coming out of your ears and grappling with Hegel (the man thought far too much). Holed up in the room for the weekend trying to answer the question, why does Hegel argue that the state is the actualisation of concrete freedom? Interesting yet barely intelligble. Anyway, here you go...

I was going to write this editorial about the "poppy fascism" debate, but then after having read a couple of articles on Jon Snow's "outrageous" and "controversial" viewpoint, I decided enough copy had been devoted to the usage of a small piece of red paper in one's lapel. I did think sewing them into the shirts of footballers on Saturday might have been a step too far, but calling it "poppy fascism" seems a tad ironic given the servicepeople (I suppose that's what we're supposed to call them nowadays) who died were kind of trying to stop the whole fascism thing from coming to Britain. Loved the journo in-fighting between him and the Humph though, who claimed Mr Snow should feel "vaguely ashamed of himself" and that he had completely "missed the point".

After the poppy debate, the thing that's been occupying my mind has been the obstacle course that is my road at the moment (it's pretty much next to the loss of life in World War I in terms of importance). The road-works people – yes, that's their official job description – have been gradually travelling through Selly Oak, and right now they're shacking up on Harrow, home of yours truly (and no, I'm not Jewish). The road is now reminiscent of the kind of challenge that confronted contenders in Gladiators, as yellow barrier things, road signs and huge holes in the ground are now keeping the sprawling rubbish bags and baton carrots (why?) company. Every weekend drunken Harrowers distribute the yellow barriers all over the road for oncoming traffic to narrowly avoid, and every Monday the workmen move them back. It's also pretty good fun watching them scowl at the people who drive up there despite the massive red sign declaring "ROAD CLOSED". Although, it's not that fun seeing lumps of earth come out of your tap instead of water.

I finally visited Cadbury World this weekend. (There was a massive plastic poppy glued onto one of its walls, by the way. Not so tasteful for a food company.) I didn't expect much, mainly because when people say, "You haven't been to Cadbury World? You have to go!" and you say, "Oh, is it really good then?" They always reply, "Yeah, it's alright." I have to say that 'alright' is not an understatement of its charms. It's probably more fun if you're from Wales, between the ages of 0 and 6 or have ADHD, given they indulge in more than a little false advertising. The best example of this is probably the new 'Essence' feature. This apparently allows to you "make your own chocolate creation!" Before you all start running down the road to Bournville, let me enlighten you as to what the process of 'creating your own chocolate' involves. You are ushered into a brightly-lit room after watching a presentation which tries to convince you that Cadbury was the first person to put milk into chocolate, a myth that is later dispelled by Cadbury's own large, animated talking head. Along the wall is a row of plastic containers holding ingredients such as rice krispies, marshmallows and mint. You are given a plastic cup and asked to choose one ingredient with which to "make your chocolate". They then put a handful of this substance in the cup, squirt some melted chocolate over the top, and hand it to you with a plastic spoon (and what's more, one of those ones that you can't lick properly because it's too deep so you have to stick your tongue right into it to get all the chocolate out). To me, this bears about as much resemblance to "making your own chocolate" as Vanessa Feltz does to Twiggy. Still, seeing one of the (immensely hyper-active) Cadbury employees tell a fat kid that he "looked like he didn't need any more chocolate" was well worth the £9.95 it costs to wander round a factory.

Anyway, enough ranting about my personal life – I'm sure I'll be back on form next week with some awfully insightful political comment that will annoy or please four of you and go unnoticed by the other (alleged) 19,996. On a final note, I must (reluctantly) agree with Mr Galloway in congratulating the American people for their achievement last week. I doubt Britain will see a similar outcome in the next election; one could almost say the Union Jack is spattered with the blood of democracy. But that's a whole different editorial…

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Friday, November 10, 2006

It's not just students

BBC News at 6pm last night showed a package about interest rates rising to 5% with some basic information about what this means for borrowers and savers. They showed a clip of an interview with a couple in Essex who have a £100,000 mortgage.

"It's hard enough saving for Christmas as it is, let alone having to pay more for the mortgage. We're not going to have as much money to spend on Christmas presents."


Poor poor little rich girl... might your children not be able to have the X Box and instead have to receive some other form of entertainment that doesn't cost hundreds of pounds?

Also, do people not realise that by raising interest rates, the Bank of England is trying to stem the rapidity with which inflation is increasing, thus actually doing the same people a favour because otherwise they would be whinging about how much inflation was going up?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Editorial 5 Issue 1297

Students not entirely happy with a number of things

In an unprecedented manoeuvre that organisers say has astounded "a heck of a lot of people," students at the University of Birmingham have decided to express their dissatisfaction with the service they are receiving at their chosen institute of education.

It is believed that the group had long been thinking about the act, but it was only at 3.37 pm on Tuesday that they finally decided to go ahead with it. It is estimated that around 637 oral complaints were registered in the next thirty minutes alone.

This is the latest in a spate of such incidents, as students begin setting an example for future generations of complainers who wish to follow their brave steps.

Students on and around the University campus have been taking the opportunity to whinge and moan about a number of different topics, including the standard of accommodation in which they reside, their courses and their financial situation.

One commented, "It's been so great to see so many people joining together and taking advantage of the fact that we can complain as much as we like. There is so much to whine about here though; I don't know if we're going to be able to get through it all in the three short years we have!"

Students have been particularly annoyed about accommodation at Birmingham. A group of freshers was forced, against their will, to stay in a hotel at no expense whatsoever to themselves, at the start of term. This shocking outrage caused uproar throughout university circles.

"It's just disgusting," declared one first-year. "To have to stay in a hotel instead of halls of residence – it's a disgrace."

Other sources of unhappiness are the fact that one catered hall does not contain any ovens and that halls which were not advertised as having the internet do not have the internet.

"I'm really annoyed that I have to, like, pay money for my accommodation," commented Chantilly Soure (Media Society and Textiles Studies I). "Considering the standards at Birmingham, I think it should be free, or, like, they should be paying us to live here. I mean, like I know we have hot meals all week, central heating, bathrooms and good-sized rooms with a great social atmosphere, but it's just not enough."

Another echoed Chantilly's all too valid comments: "You see all these African villages and things on the news and you think you'll never have to live in the same kind of deprivation here. But since I've got to Birmingham, I've realised that social injustice isn't just found in the third world. It's here at Edgbaston too."

Students have also been protesting at how difficult it is to live on a student budget. It has been reported that some are being forced to go without necessities such as iPods and designer clothing in order not to exceed their overdrafts. Amnesty International is rumoured to be investigating the situation to see if the Student Loans Company is guilty of human rights violation.

"I'm not asking for Jimmy Choos and Chloe – well, not unless I've got Daddy's card," said Annabel Parker-Digby, from Buckinghamshire. "But I do think it is a little unreasonable to expect us to go without the weekly shopping trip. I mean, that's why a lot of us came to Birmingham – the Bullring is just sooo convenient."

Other students have been shocked that they are expected to pay for alcohol and food out of their student loans. "No one told me," grumbled one rugby player who wished to remain anonymous.

It is as yet unknown what the University plans to do in reaction to this totally unexpected barrage of complaints. Experts are expected to confirm later this week that this new phenomena of student life – dissatisfaction with, well, everything – is affecting universities other than Birmingham, up and down the country. It remains to be seen whether it can be stopped.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Editorial 4 - Whatever Happened to the Left?

I'm aware that I've already addressed some of these issues in a previous post, but the readership of Redbrick hadn't yet had the pleasure, so here's my editorial from last week. I think it is an issue that is particularly relevant for students, as so many I talk to these days are now reluctant to align themselves with 'Socialism' although they support the true causes which were its foundation. For example, how can my Jewish friends who oppose the war in Iraq march against it...?

“George Bush, we know you, your daddy was a killer too.” Disturbingly, these words came from the mouth of a boy barely older than five, balanced on the shoulders of his father. Anti-war slogans steamed into the February air, each of varying wit. (“Who let the bombs out? Bush, Bush, Bush, Bush!” doesn’t sound great, however many people are yelling it.)

This, the march of 15th February 2003, was, supposedly, history in the making, although it turned out to be more anti-climax than anti-war. It attracted an estimated two million people (although the number can change dramatically depending on who’s doing the estimating). I myself was proud to take part, as someone who vehemently disagrees with a war built on a false premise.

However, this column is about why I now choose not to march. The reason being that I am tired of being labelled as a supporter of causes I deplore, simply by association. We were sold an anti-war march, but what we got was a cocktail of political beliefs that we had to swallow if we wanted to protest. Why, by protesting against the Iraq war, do I automatically have to endorse placards alongside me that manifest anti-Semitic sentiments? On a recent march during the Israeli offensive in Lebanon, a protester carried a poster depicting Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert as axe-wielding murderers, drawn with over-sized noses, exaggerated “Jewish” features and spattered with blood. It was worthy of a Nazi cartoonist; Goebbels would have been proud. I would hope that anyone on that march protesting simply against the ferocity of Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s actions would have been horrified to be associated with such appalling racism.

The question this raises is: what does it now mean to be on the Left? Or, as Michael Walzer put it, ‘Can There Be a Decent Left?’ (Walzer, 2002). Before I came to university, I was a stereotypical teenage socialist, proclaiming Tony Blair to be a neo-fascist, demanding taxes be raised to at least 70% and loving Tony Benn more than Cher loves plastic. My rose-tinted spectacles were quickly washed away by the waves of cynicism that crashed over me in most of my politics seminars, but my left-wing core remains intact. I still believe in taxation and redistribution; I want to see the Welfare State survive, not sell out; and I don’t believe that neo-liberalism is anything but damaging. The real disillusionment has come not with the abandonment of my socialist beliefs, but with the realisation that with these beliefs comes an automatic alignment to other, more sinister, causes.

The Left in Britain today has now become synonymous with a set of issues that have never been a part, historically, of socialism or social democracy. The issue on which the Left is shouting loudest at the moment is principally Islamophobia, a worthy cause in itself but not when coupled with the sentiments that accompany it. Whilst berating Blair for killing Iraqi civilians (as should we all), Leftist organisations are backing Hezbollah and Hamas, groups which desire “death to Israel”, suppress women’s rights and terrorise homosexuals, not to mention oppose democratic regimes: all attitudes against which the hard Left fights in its own country, and now seemingly supports elsewhere. Meanwhile, the crisis in Darfur goes relatively unspoken of in Left circles, and racist anti-Americanism is rife.

When did being a socialist stop being about wanting equality of opportunity and start to be about rejecting all your core values in the name of the ‘resistance’, which is a poor code for ‘terrorism’? I do not want my identity as a ‘Lefty’ to be decided by others who are pursuing their own dangerous political agenda in the name of socialism. Those of us who wish to be socialists without the manacles of fascism binding our wrists must stand up for the principles which first made us proud to be on the Left. If they’re shouting loud, we must shout louder.

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Birmingham Mail Column

Several people have asked me what's going on with the column in the Mail I was offered, so here's a quick update. I sent off the sample column a while ago and didn't hear anything, so kept badgering and got an email back a couple of weeks ago. They relaunched the paper a year ago and changed a lot of features, and they're currently reviewing how that's gone and making the necessary resulting changes, so he wants to leave it till Christmas when that's finished. Also, he said he wants to pay me for it (!!!!!) so he wants to work out if that's possible. Although to be honest, a column is a column is a column... it would be worth more than money in terms of my career. BUT, he did say that my sample column was 'just what he was looking for', which is ace, so watch this space.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Quotes

See right for a new favourite quote of mine. Helmut Gollwitzer was a Lutheran who lived in Nazi Germany and was a member of the Confessing Churches. But I stumbled across him in my reading around Marxism and Christianity in the book "Christian Faith & Marxist Criticism", written by him.

I'm on page 13 and it's really opening my eyes to stuff about Marxism that I never really realised before. They teach you a really stupidly condensed, missing the point form of Marxism in college.

More to follow, no doubt.

Will hopefully get round to posting my last editorial here soon.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Photo Album

I am setting up a Picasa Web Album to put pictures. At the moment there are only a few but I thought I'd tell you now for future reference. Here's the link.