One reason I’m an Atheist (Guest Post)

 

Andromeda

A fortnight ago I published Matter of Facts’ first ever guest post from my friend Helen arguing amongst other things for the beauty of a Christian worldview. In this response from a non-religious viewpoint Robin McGhee argues that a world without God is potentially far more beautiful than one with:

I find atheism is often defined more by being against religion than for anything else. Many prominent atheists have made their theological careers primarily by attacking religion instead of constructing something positive. Names like Richard Dawkins, Robert Ingersoll, and Christopher Hitchens are associated with opposition to religion rather than positive statements about atheism. I don’t think this is healthy. It forces the argument to be debated on religious terms. Why, many atheists have asked, should it be us facing the burden of proof? Likewise, we should not be the ones who ignore the positive benefits of our beliefs.

By contrast, arguments for religious belief are routinely articulated almost entirely by pointing out the positives. Yahweh is a loving god. Islam is a religion of peace. Believe in Christianity and you will be saved. This is what Helen says in her guest post on this blog. It is a very pleasing argument. Accentuating the positive rather than deriding your opponents makes it far easier to gloss over the basic metaphysical problems underpinning your philosophy.

I am attracted to atheism because it offers a more beautiful depiction of the world than religious faith could ever offer.

If you don’t believe in god, you hopefully understand the logical consequences. You were not created for any purpose, there is no afterlife, everything you’ve ever known and loved will be destroyed and all memories of it erased, and the Universe itself, and with it the laws of physics which enable your existence, will shrivel to nothingness in the course of billions of years. I like these thoughts. They give a lot of freedom. It’s much nicer to know you can do or think whatever you want than live according by the rules of a deity to whose absolute control you never gave any consent. It is especially wonderful to view the world as it is, a product of chance, with all the complexities and beauties an object of even greater fascination and delight as a result.

Sometimes I have tried to imagine how I would see the world if I were a practising Christian. I feel it would be a much less interesting, and considerably less welcoming, world. Instead of acknowledging a world created by amazing coincidences, I would feel compelled to ask searing moral questions about the causes of its hardships, and ignore its beauty. Instead of complete freedom to choose my own direction and meaning in life, I would feel compelled to see my purpose as serving a deity who might never makes its presence known to me, and whose edicts and proclamations are frequently confusing. It would be a life of direction, but not a direction of my choosing- I might not feel comfortable with it, but I would feel like I had to struggle on unless I renounced my religion. My implied criticism of him earlier notwithstanding, Christopher Hitchens’ point that to believe in Christian doctrine is like living in a divine North Korea is strikingly accurate. And his flourish that, at least, you can die in North Korea- while for Christians, to die is just the start of it- is especially pertinent when even the most liberal monotheists routinely believe in a divinely-ordained afterlife.

I embrace atheism because it allows us to understand our own freedom and power, and also our own fallacies. If I become crippled by illness or misfortune, I do not have to question the foundations of my own faith and worry about whether this is part of a divine plan. I can understand that we’re just molecules and this is the sort of thing molecules do to each other. Moreover, I can place my trust in human remedies to solve my problems, rather than prostrating myself before a god who I must constantly worry doesn’t care about my problems.

These are only some of the reasons for being an atheist. I have hardly delved at all into criticisms of religion per se. No doubt the reader is already aware of the main ones. However, I would ask any religious readers to reconsider their faith in a divine being, and recognise the beauty and freedom of a world without god.

America’s incarceration addiction

America has 5% of the world’s people but 25% of its prisoners

graph showing the incarceration rate per 100,000 in 2010 of founding members of NATO

What’s more even the American states that imprison the fewest people such as Vermont, still have a greater proportion of their populations in jail than virtually every country in OECD.

The explanation seems to be America’s drug laws:

Probably the biggest driver of this growth has been ever-harsher drug penalties. In response to the crack epidemic of the 1980s, Congress and state legislatures began passing laws that meted out mandatory-minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. These were intended to help nab major traffickers, but the sentences were triggered by the possession of tiny quantities of drugs: five grams of crack, for instance, resulted in a mandatory-minimum sentence of five years. Conspiracy laws made everyone involved in a drug-running operation legally liable for all of the operation’s activities: a child hired for a few dollars a day to act as a lookout at the door of a crack house was on the hook for all the drugs sold in that house and all the crimes associated with their sale. These sorts of laws kept America’s prison population growing even as its crime rate declined.

The Balkans: a not so far away land of which we still know little

A century after an assassination in the Balkans plunged Europe into the Great War – and twenty years after the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia – Westerners are still embarrassingly ignorant of what remains a crucial region

Me in front of the plaque marking the spot where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand took place

Me visiting Sarajevo in 2011

A SMALL TOWN FAR FAR AWAY

On April 21 1913 Scutari – a town that lay in what was then the European territories of the Ottoman Empire – fell to Montenegrin and Serb forces after a siege lasting several months. In one sense there was nothing especially remarkable about the fall of an Ottoman town. ‘The First Balkan War’ was underway at the time during which an alliance of states and nationalist movements across the Balkans pushed the once mighty Empire out of Europe and back into its Anatolian heartlands. However, the taking of Scutari was to prove uniquely problematic for efforts to end the conflict.

In 1912, the British foreign secretary Edward Grey chaired a Conference of Ambassadors which drew up a plan for a post-Ottoman Balkans. That plan had given Scutari to the newly independent Albania. Therefore as far as the international community was concerned, the Serbian and Montenegrin forces needed to leave the city. They refused – they hoped that by remaining in Scutari they could bring about its annexation to Montenegro and expand the Serb sphere of influence.

This was an incredibly dangerous gamble for it threatened a much wider conflict than between Albanian and Serbia and Montenegro. The Austro-Hungarian Empire regarded Serbia as a menace and might be willing to use force to prevent it expanding. Serbia meanwhile was allied with Russia. Therefore, it was conceivable these two powers could go to war over Scutari. And if that happened then Germany would quite probably come to Austria-Hungary’s aid, as France (and possibly Britain) might to Russia’s. Grey wound up lamenting the prospect of a general European war being caused by a dispute over “a few villages on the Albanian border” – a phrase chillingly reminiscent of Chamberlain’s ridiculing of the notion of fighting Hitler for the sake of Czechoslovakia, “a faraway land of which we know little.”

A HISTORY OF INTERVENTION

In the end Scutari, did not of course lead to a war. Britain and Italy sent warships to sit off the coast of Albania in a display which successfully intimidated the Serb forces into withdrawing. This was not, however, to be the last time that Western militaries would be sent the Balkans. Most spectacularly and destructively, following the assassination a century ago today in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne – his country blamed Serbia and declared war on it. This triggered the interlocking network of alliances which brought the Europe’s Great Powers into the ‘Great War’ which left millions dead. There would be plenty more examples to come: British forces would fight the Axis in Greece during WWII and would then take part in a civil war there between monarchists and communists in arguably the first conflict of the Cold War, and then in the 1990s NATO would intervene not once but twice to prevent Muslim populations being ethnically cleansed by Serbian nationalists.

“WHY ARE YOU GOING ON HOLIDAY TO A WARZONE?”

Given all of this history it is striking how little understood the Balkans is in America or Western Europe. In a piece for the New Yorker, the Yugoslav-born journalist Tea Obrecht lamented that the lethal floods which struck Bosnia and Serbia last month leaving thousands homeless and causing billions of pounds of damage were all but ignored by the Western media until (the Serbian) Novak Djokovic called them out for it on twitter. She observes that:

The former Yugoslavia has never been especially fashionable. Its countries are “somewhere, over there” in the back end of Europe, crouching between the desirable vacation mainstays of Italy and Greece. Sure, the Dalmatian coast is pretty nice, and if you can afford it there are good times to be had on Hvar. These days, Bosnia and Croatia offer inexpensive stopovers for summer inter-railing, Dubrovnik and Belgrade are ports of call on European tours, and Novi Sad has cemented its place in pop culture as the home of the legendary Exit music festival. The former Yugoslavia has contributed legendary athletes, from Vlade Divac to Jelena Janković to Edin Džeko, to a range of sports; meanwhile, in the diaspora, the voices of Balkan doctors, scientists, and professors are taking root in Western institutions. This has been a significant upswing from the kind of associations that plagued the Balkans in the early nineties: shuffling, gaunt-faced refugees; or aviator-masked, machine-gun-wielding paramilitary; the ubiquitous wool-clad septuagenarian leaning on a rake in the foreground of a panorama detailing the ashen remains of his farm and the minefield beyond.

Nevertheless, these stale tropes have been reinforced again and again, hammered into reality by distance and laziness and inscrutability. They have become familiar and inextricable items in the ex-Yugoslavia package. On hearing that you’re from those parts, people at barbecues say “I was over there in 1973, and it was absolutely beautiful—its terrible what happened”, while you nod and brace yourself for the inevitable follow-up: “is it getting any better?” You explain that you go back frequently; that yes, Twitter is totally a thing in the Balkans; and of course, it’s quite safe to travel there now—except, perhaps, like other soccer-happy regions, during major club and World Cup qualification matches. If, like me, you are of mixed background, you explain that your family is full of Bosnians and Slovenes and Serbs alike, completely upending the flashcard facts people employ for making sense of the region: Serbs as nationalistic savages; Bosnians as godforsaken peasants; Croats as the good-looking, rough-around-the-edges émigrés that your hairdresser dated in her early twenties—casually, of course.

Obrecht might lament that her friends slip into thinking about the people of the Balkans in terms of stereotypes. I’m just impressed they are aware enough of the region to have stereotypes about its people.

When last year, I was showed a student from Pristina a spare room me and my housemates were trying to let out, it transpired I was the first person she had spoken to in the UK who knew Pristina was in Kosovo!

CLUELESS IN HOLLYWOOD

However, my favourite example of ignorance of the Balkans comes from of all places 24 [spoilers for seasons 1-3 ahead]. As fans of the show will know the early seasons revolve around the blowback from a Special Forces raid led by the show’s hero Jack Bauer which aimed to assassinate a Serbian general and war criminal named Victor Drazen. However, as this storyline plays out it becomes clear that the show’s writers don’t know and haven’t bothered to find out even quite basic details about the Balkans. So for example, in the course of a single episode the raid is described as happening in both Bosnia and Kosovo!

https://i2.wp.com/thebaconandicecreamblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/kiefer-sutherland-as-jack-bauer-in-24-2-poster-wallpaper-1600x1200.jpg

Do not ask this man for directions to Pristina!

These are two very distinct countries. True they do have some similarities; they were both part of the Ottoman Empire and the Former Yugoslavia, Islam is the largest religion in both and they were both involved in wars with Serbia which led to NATO interventions. However, getting from one to the other would involve passing through a 100 KMs of Serbia or Montenegro. The majority of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians who (naturally) speak Albanian, while Bosnians are Serbo-Croat speaking Slavs. And even in the Yugoslav years they were part of different republics. So a scriptwriter confusing the two countries is roughly equivalent to someone writing a WWII film and getting France and Poland mixed up.

The scriptwriters make further errors which demonstrate this was not an anomaly. They christen Drazen as the “Butcher of Belgrade”, raising the question of why – a desire to be alliterative aside – a Serb general would be butchering the Serb population of Serbia’s capital. Probably the worst example, however, is when season 3’s big bad, an MI6 officer named Stephen Saunders, the only surviving member of the team Bauer took into Drazen’s compound tells Jack that he was captured and tortured by the “Bosnian secret police.” This is dumb for two reasons. Firstly, the raid is supposed to have happened around 1999, by which point Bosnia was a multi-party democracy administered by the UN, hence rather unlikely to have a secret police?* And even if it did why would they be torturing – rather than giving a beer to – someone who’d killed a Serb war criminal who they would regard as an enemy!

Now I don’t expect much by way of accuracy from the ostentatiously ludicrous 24. That said, knowing the difference between Kosovo and Bosnia is a very low bar for the writers to clear. And they seem able to avoid these errors in other parts of the world: there is much to complain about in season 4’s depiction of a Turkish Islamist terror group but at least its members don’t suddenly become Uzbeks or Arabs! The depressing conclusion I take away from this is that being involved in wars in Bosnia and Kosovo has not led us Westerners to acquiring the basic knowledge of the region in which they lie to enable us to tell them apart. Rather, we have lazily elided them in our minds as places war happens.

A REGION THAT STILL MATTERS

This matters because from a Western point of view the Balkans remains an important region:

So while events in the Balkans probably are not about to have the world shattering impact they had a century ago, it is still a region both politicians and the public should pay attention to.
Yet we have such an attitude of complacent ignorance regarding South-Eastern Europe that if something of equivalent importance to the Sarajevo assassination did happen in the Balkans I am not sure we’d either notice or understand it.

 

*I appreciate a UN administered democracy is something of a contradiction in terms!

Belle (Review)

Austin meets Amistad in a superior costume drama

Belle is this year’s second film about race and slavery. The first, the Best Picture winning 12 Years a Slave, was an unremittingly violent study of life on a Louisiana cotton plantation. Belle by contrast is an apparently gentle Jane Austen pastiche overflowing with baronets and bonnets.

Given this comparison you expect Belle to wind up looking rather trivial or perhaps even objectionable. In fact, while Belle is not a masterpiece like 12 Years, it serves as a pleasing and insightful compliment to its Oscar winning thematic brethren.

While it might appear a strange concept to make a Georgian Costume Drama about slavery, it actually recalls a long running academic debate. The celebrated Palestinian-American literary theorist Edward Said argued that Austen’s Mansfield Park was greatly influenced by being set in a nation at the heart of an empire. So for example, he notes characters who derive their livelihood from holdings in Antigua. While Said’s theory is controversial, the idea of seeing how British High Society is entangled with empire is an intriguing one, and Belle runs with it.

Like Mansfield Park it is the story of a young woman sent to live on her Uncle and Aunt’s estate. However, this one is based on real characters and events. In this case that woman is Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw – who Dr Who fans might recognise as Martha’s sister who almost got eaten by Mark Gatiss) the daughter of a white officer in the Royal Navy and a free slave. Her uncle played by Tom Wilkinson is the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield. The story follows both Dido’s difficulties living as a woman of colour in a racist society and how her life is affected by a seminal slavery case Lord Mansfield is judging.

This remarkable (and real) historical co-incidence is fleshed out into an engaging story. It’s delivered with through some compelling performances and it retains some nice Austinesque flairs: “Sir!!! You’re manners are as none-existent as your brother’s fortune!!!”

It’s also rather insightful about how different hierarchies interact , what is sometimes called intersectionality. Dido is trapped in a kind of limbo. Elevated by her wealth, class and lineage but burdened by her race, such that it is, for example, not considered proper for her to eat with either her family or their servants.

And it can’t easily be dismissed as being soft. It’s a much gentler watch than 12 years but the horror of slavery is still pretty clear. The central court case turns on the events of the Zong Massacre in which 142 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard and drowned by their captors during their passage across the Atlantic. The horror of this event was made even worse by the venal motive for it; the crew hoped to claim insurance money for the loss of their “cargo.” While this happens off camera, it is actually a greater atrocity than any of the lynchings, beatings and rapes depicted in 12 years. Belle also points on occasion to the vulnerability of black women to sexual violence. It may not have 12 Years’ overt brutality but the darkness is there.

Despite all this it’s not a perfect film. For most of its length it avoids becoming schmaltzy but does sometimes tip over into that direction. This matter is not helped by an awful violin heavy soundtrack which becomes intrusively loud at key moments. Oh and if you know Oxford, you’ll spend much of the film’s second half thinking things like: “that’s the Sheldonian not the Royal Courts of Justice!”

Verdict: 7/10 – it has its flaws but it’s a clever use of an apparently comfortable genre to explore a dark part of our history