Archive for the 'Religion' Category


America and health care

In the light of the recent passage by the U.S. House of Represenatives of the Senate’s version of healthcare reform and the ensuing wailing, gnashing of teeth and smearing of soot in the hair by opponents of said reform, let me give my view – as an outsider – on the matter:

It’s a question of morality.

It astounds me — and, frankly, every other non-American USA-watcher in the developed world — that the richest nation on earth, whose very constitution proclaims the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness to be it’s highest ideals, whose citizenry so loudly profess to live by Christian virtues, would not guarantee that some form of basic, minimum healthcare be available to all of its citizens independently of their ability to pay.  It utterly astounds me.  If I were American, it would disgust me that this had not happened 50 years ago.

If my income and my wealth is above average for my society, I have an ethical duty to subsidise the health care of those who are, for whatever reason, at the lower end of the spectrum.  Yes, there are issues of free riders and of personal responsibility, but they simply do not matter when answering the basic question.  The government of a country, acting on behalf of that country’s people, has a moral imperative to provide a minimum level of care to all of its citizens.

I am not saying this as a screaming socialist.  I freaking hate socialism.  I love the market (when it’s allowed to function properly with full transparancy).  I support (at least partially, and possibly fully) privitised social security.  I like the idea of small government.  I rage against the nanny-state in Australia and in the UK.  I worry about encouraging dependency and a sence of entitlement in those people assisted by the government.  But those concerns take a back seat on this issue.

So, yes, the second question (a two-for) is to ask what the minimum level should be and how to pay for it.  But first question should have been a no-brainer.

If all the country can afford is a polio shot and a packet of aspirin, then that’s what they should provide (hopefully a charity or two might help out, too).  But if the country is the richest in the history of the planet, they should be able to stump up for a bit more.

And, yes, for the next criticism, this particular reform by the U.S. Congress is nominally promising more than it will reallly provide when it comes to the fiscal deficit.  Yes, again, given America’s political structure, U.S. government spending won’t be truely corrected until there is a real crisis approaching (as opposed to the make-believe crises being proclaimed by people opposed to the bailouts and stimulus package(s)).

I don’t care.  The child of an unemployed, drug-taking high-school dropout should not be deprived of basic access to a doctor just because we’re angry at their parents.  Nor should their parents, come to that.


More on Northern Ireland vs. Israel/Palestine

After my last post on this, I’ve been listening to the responses of Sinn Fein to the recent murder of two guys in the British Army by the “Real IRA” and, believe it or not, thinking about the parallels with Islam.  There’s nothing particularly original in my thoughts, but I thought I’d put them up here anyway.

a) I think that many beliefs – and often more importantly, many practices that are based on beliefs – change only very slowly over time. Often, the practices retain importance even when the beliefs they’re based on have long since evaporated.

b) What’s more, beliefs – and practices – change much more across generations than within them, so that once you reach your first full set of beliefs at around the age of 20, they’ll change extremely slowly, if at all, over the rest of your life. Real change comes when children choose to differ from their parents. This sort of thing is not particular to ideas of religion or morality. There’s been some recent work showing that people’s attitudes to risk-taking are essentially shaped when they’re young.

c) When somebody makes the discrete choice to turn to violence, it’s common to conclude that they are an inherently violent person (or, in the case of the radical Islamist stuff, operating under inherently violent beliefs). Contrary to this, I suspect that the violence emerges at a point of inflection (a “tipping point”) in how they cope with perceived opposition to their beliefs. It doesn’t matter if their beliefs are constant but their perception of society’s opposition to them is changing, or if their beliefs are changing and their perception of society is constant. At some point, the distance between their private beliefs and their perception of what the world is imposing on them becomes great enough for them to break from their previous behaviour and move to something disjointedly different. Violence from radical Muslims is one example, but so is violence from Republicans in Northern Ireland, or violence from working-class gangs in Northern England in the early ’80s.

d) There is an important difference between the distance between two two sets of beliefs and the level of opposition between them. Opposition might be more likely to increase when the beliefs are a long way apart, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. It is the sense of opposition that leads to the disjoint jump into violence.

e) Therefore, what brings about peace in the long term is long periods of calm. Calm with grumbling, certainly, but calm. The newly migrant family might stick out like a sore thumb, but so long as they are tolerated and they tolerate their new home, then their children (or their grandchildren) will eventually conform to the society they find themselves in.

I think the greatest victory in Northern Ireland was in convincing people to put down their guns for a while. The details of any particular agreement are less important, because the real details will emerge from the ground up as the people who had previously been spitting in each other’s faces find themselves (awkwardly, painfully) interacting with each other instead. Yes, the details of the agreement are what helped put the guns down in the first place, but that was all.

I read somewhere that before the recent crap in Gaza, Hamas had offered Israel a 30-year truce. Not a peace agreement. Not an acknowledgement of Israel’s right to exist. Just a truce. If it’s true, I think Israel made a mistake in not accepting it.


The cantankerous nature of Hamas

Jeffrey Goldberg writes in the NY Times:

What a phantasmagorically strange conflict the Arab-Israeli war had become! Here was a Saudi-educated, anti-Shiite (but nevertheless Iranian-backed) Hamas theologian accusing a one-time Israeli Army prison official-turned-reporter of spying for Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, an organization that had once been the foremost innovator of anti-Israeli terrorism but was now, in Mr. Rayyan’s view, indefensibly, unforgivably moderate.

I don’t want to take a side here, just marvel at the incredible ability of the human mind to twist itself into such knots of conspiracy and ideology.


The Archbishop of Canterbury: mischaracterised, but still off the rails

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has drawn a storm of criticism ( BBC, Times, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph) by calling for a “plural jurisdiction” that allows for Islamic law to be recognised in Britain.

It seems unavoidable and, as a matter of fact, certain conditions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law, so it is not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system. We already have in this country a number of situations in which the internal law of religious communities is recognised by the law of the land as justifying conscientious objections in certain circumstances.

There is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with aspects of other kinds of religious law.

That principle that there is only one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western democracy. But I think it is a misunderstanding to suppose that people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and that the law needs to take some account of that.

As I understand it, under English (and, I’m guessing, Australian) law, there is already the following arrangement:

In the event of a civil dispute, if both parties independently agree to it, that dispute can be heard in arbitration by somebody (or a group of people) separate from the courts and the decision of that arbitration will be binding under the law. There are nevertheless legal limits as to what the arbitration may declare.

As a first example, this practice is widely used in investment law, both domestic and international.

As a second example, it would be available if a tenant is complaining that their landlord hasn’t fixed the heating.

At present, there is a Jewish version of this set up in Britain. There is nothing to stop a Muslim equivalent being set up, if it hasn’t already.

The key point is that the arbitration can not proceed unless both parties agree beforehand to take part and abide by the ruling. If either one does not, then it goes before the regular courts.

Where the archbishop has gone off the rails, in my opinion, is that he seems to be calling for an entirely extra-judicial set-up; a competing system of justice that is parallel to (not a component of) the general law of the state.  That is simply wrong.


Aggregate demand for the spiritual (updated)

Adam (sans-blog, but when he bothers, he writes at the South Sea Republic) pointed me to this article at The Guardian. All we need to know comes from the opening sentence:

After a break of 16 centuries, Greek pagans are worshipping the ancient gods again – despite furious opposition from the Orthodox church.

Is there a link between the rise of modern-day paganism, astrology, homoeopathic medicine etc. and the hardening of mainstream religions? If so, does one cause the other, or are they both caused by a third factor?

I wonder if it might be possible to develop some sort of measure of a country’s aggregate demand for the spiritual. You might do it by adding up all the money spent on them (including donations to religious bodies) and then adding in the value of the time spent attending religious services and festivals. I guess you could derive the latter by looking at attendance numbers, knowing something about the average duration of services and making an estimate of the value of leisure-time.

If it was feasible, you’d be able to infer answers to several questions:

The proportional break-down of the “spending” might give a truer estimate of the distribution of religious belief in society than census data … in essence, we would be looking at revealed preference rather than stated preference.

If aggregate demand for the spiritual were changing over time, that might indicate a demographic shift (from immigration, say) or — and this would be more interesting — it might provide a measure of movements in dissatisfaction with life in general. For example, a trend of decreasing demand might indicate that people are becoming more satisfied with life, or at least that they are able to find what they want in the temporal world without needing to turn to the spiritual.

*sigh* So little time, so many pointless things to waste my time thinking about.

Update 1:

Adam read this and interpreted it as my suggesting that as people become richer, they become less religious. Rereading it, I guess that’s a fair interpretation, but it’s not what I meant at all. My current suspicion is that, on the whole, demand for the spiritual has remained remarkably constant over the years. With absolutely no figures to back it up, I reckon that aggregate demand in Australia reached a low-point in the early ’80s, increased steadily and has largely stabilised since the turn of the century. I think that the aggregate demand now is much closer to historical trend levels and that the early ’80s represented a temporary low point. I also think that the reversion-to-the-mean that we’ve seen over the last 30 years has not come from a return to 1950s-style religion, but from a general embrace of smaller aspects of spirtuality coupled with nostalgic, idealised views of the distant past and an increasing distrust of authority and “the system”. The diversity that ensued has therefore seen the rise (or perhaps more accurately, the return) of stuff like paganism and astrology, coupled with attempts to merge these small-scale, anti-establishment religious views with pop science in the form of stuff like “What the bleep do we know?” and so forth.

I’ve heard this latter stuff described as “quasi-religious” and to some extent, I agree. To the extent that they’re not codified, formalised or doctrinal, they’re only quasi-religious; but on the whole, I think that it still represents the same underlying desire for the spiritual that existed in the 1950s, simply expressed in a different form. So in that sense, there’s nothing “quasi” about it … it’s just “religious.”

Assuming that I’m correct in my gut-feel for the figures (which is why I’d love to find some proper figures instead of randomly waving my hands in the air), all of this just raises the questions of a) why is the demand there in general? and b1) why did it drop in the early ’80s? or b2) why, after dropping in the early ’80s, has it come back?