Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Ultimate Fighting” and Ancient Rome

I recently had occasion to spend a few most interesting days in the Republic of South Africa. While there I had some wonderful and disturbing experiences.

The most unsettling, apart from the poverty and evident signs of violence and fear had less to do with South Africa than a television program out of the United States that was on the regular channel on the TV in my room.

Casually switching stations trying to find one that was not televising rugby (don’t get me wrong, I love rugby and used to play it at a serious level but even I have my saturation point…) I came across a channel showing something called “ultimate fighting.”

This spectacle (for it was not a sport by any good definition of the term) involved very muscle-bound and chemically enhanced men trying to incapacitate each other by a combination of kicks, elbows, punches etc. Biting alone seemed ruled out only because the competitors wore large mouth guards. Head butting seemed to be de rigeur. The leather coverings on the fists were not gloves, as they are known in boxing since they were much thinner and without padding.

This “entertainment” differed from so-called “all-star wrestling” in that it was actually happening and not faked. More importantly, there was a large celebrity audience that included, so the announcer made clear, several leading porn actors, sports figures and politicians.

The event was taking place in a casino in New York and billed itself as having the fasted growing ratings on television. If this is true things are worse than I thought - - and that is saying rather a lot.

For one thing, this fighting is very bloody and extremely violent. It is, in a word, gladiatorial. I don’t know if anyone has died in it yet, but the prospect of a death is certainly there - - as it is in boxing, but more so in “ultimate fighting” because choke-holds are allowed and, in one competition between two people one of whom was known by the charming sobriquet of “the Huntington Beach Bad Boy” a competitor actually passed out as a result of a choke-hold. First aid attendants rushed in to revive the incapacitated “athlete” and his opponent declared the winner of the match.

Good, clean fun exhibiting the best that human kind can achieve. Hardly.

The comparison between the baying crowd and the competitors slipping on each other’s blood with gladiatorial contests in ancient Rome is only too obvious. Of course we are not actually allowing weapons and intentional killings for the crowds’ entertainment but the direction this is going is fairly clear isn’t it?

Interestingly, the end of the gladiatorial contests of old is attributed to Christianity - - though subjected to numerous prohibitions from Constantine onwards it was a monk in the year 404 A.D., one Telemachus, who brought proceedings finally to a close when he rushed into the arena to try and separate the combatants only to be instantly despatched by the order of the person in charge. When the Emperor of the time, Honorius, heard the report he issued an edict abolishing the games that were never afterwards revived.

Now that the old blood lusts are rising again and Christianity is no longer the force it was keeping such things as child sacrifice and blood sports in check, we should keep our eyes peeled for the first legal killing contests…they are coming closer all the time and if ultimate fighting is anything to go by, just around the corner.

Iain T. Benson ©

Friday, May 27, 2005

Christian Activists Get Party Nominations: Woo, Scary….

So a journalist at the Globe and Mail is up to the usual kind of coverage of an issue involving religion and our public life in Canada. Here is how one of its journalists describes the fact that some well-known Christians have gained Conservative party nominations:

Some in party worry new riding nominees will reinforce
notion of 'hidden agenda'

Ah yes, the old “hidden agenda” - - the tried and true Kinsella move of using what can be described as “woo scary” approach to what should be discussed intelligently. The Globe article prefers to set up a “woo scary” without actually discussing the real reasons that these people want to get into politics. It raises the specter of “single-issue” politics in relation to them yet none of them are “single-issue” candidates, at least not the ones I have known for years; I speak of Darrel Reid (Richmond) and Cindy Silver (North Vancouver).

So if some citizens who happen to combine overt Christian commitments with a belief that Canadian politics needs an injection of certain kinds of ideas and convictions have decided to become involved in politics and have succeeded at gaining nominations in certain areas, well, good. Let’s imagine the story the other away around.

Here is the headline:

Agnostics and Atheists Capture Liberal Races Some in party worry new riding nominees will reinforce notion of “full drift ahead.”

The fact is that many of our politicians today wouldn’t know a moral proposition if they stumbled over one in the dark. That is not a good thing for politics, which, after all, should care something about how we ought (and “ought” is the moral term here) to function politically. Let’s call these people the “drift” candidates since they further what I like to think of Canada’s operative principle at the moment - -“full drift ahead.”

So, at the moment, it appears as if some more intentional people are running for politics. The views of an intentional candidate, rather than a drift candidate, tend to be, in fact, visible and sometimes well articulated as opposed to less than visible and confused.

Full drift ahead, is not really visible and articulate by definition but it is just as much an agenda of a certain type of politician as is the belief of some of these new nominees that certain things are better and certain things are worse for Canadian society. Quick starter for ten: what are Paul Martin’s moral beliefs? Can’t say? Why is that do you think? Careful and sustained planning and endless spin: do you think that is good for any country to have this sort of non-leadership and for its citizenry to keep voting it in partly out of fear caused by the “woo scarys”? No?

This debate about the discussion of moral issues in politics is about what kind of democracy we have and that is the real reason that some Canadians will fear the new nominees. The contest is between the definers and the drifters. The drifters are content to let the courts do their defining - - or small cliques within the drift that they control. Definers raise the specter of checking some of this by creating (shock, horror) discussion around it.

If the drifters want to object to those with overt beliefs from running in politics, fine, there is a remedy. Beat them at the polls. Outvote them in the House and Senate or, better yet, out argue them in principled debate. That is politics.

But to use the Kinsella “scare tactics” to attempt to influence the process based upon innuendo, well, that is just the same old game and it produces a tired and pathetic kind of politics; the sort we have seen for far too long in Canada.

Let’s keep the focus on the issues rather than the connection some of these people have had to a variety of interest groups in the past. Don’t the drifters have interest groups as well? Of course they do. Remember the National Action Committee for the Status of Women - - does anyone call that a “single issue” group? Why not? Why are these overtly Christian candidates called “single issue?” More of the woo scary…

It is high time that Canada got something like real debate happening and this might just be an election that raises real issues rather than those carefully chosen by the spin-doctors and their drifting buddies who have made our politics such a laughing stock…

CENTRBLOG: Volume 82
Iain T. Benson ©

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Two Views of the Georgia Straight's Article on the Centre/SFU Conference
"Citizenship and the Common Good: Secularism or the Inclusive Society?"
Vancouver, BC, May 19 & 20, 2005.

Casting faith and science against each other is futile
By Steve Bailey
Publish Date: 26-May-2005
As appeared in the Georgia Straight

Congratulations to Shannon Rupp and the Straight for taking a serious look at some important issues regarding culture, science, and faith. I attended the conference at SFU Harbourside and would like to share a couple of observations.

First, it is wrong to present the Centre for Cultural Renewal as an organization longing for some past time of religious hegemony in Canadian culture. The centre’s business is to find new and effective relationships among people of faith (including those who would profess no faith—a religious commitment in itself) to create a culture aware of the positive values that could and should inform its citizens’ actions.

Second, raising the old spectre of “evolution versus creation” and “intelligent design” is rather wearisome. Casting faith and science against each other is futile and does justice to neither.

Which brings up Dan Siney’s work. The student group at Handsworth that protested the “Ascent of Man” mural probably missed the central point. That mural itself is a “religious” icon, a statement of faith. It is just as much a religious depiction as the attention-getting cover picture that cleverly combines William Blake and the “Ascent of Man”. Let’s see these things for what they are: depictions of a world-view. As such, the humanities/arts wing of a school would be a more appropriate place for such a representation.

I would also take issue with Siney’s view that “it would be impossible to study religions in public schools.” Patently false—and an extremely limiting position. I taught a senior secondary course in comparative religions for many years. It was an opportunity to bring groups of students together to practise civil dialogue that aimed at greater understanding and more informed thinking.

I wish Iain Benson and the Centre for Cultural Renewal well, and I congratulate Don Grayston and the SFU Centre for the Humanities for hosting a positive and worthwhile event that reflected intellectual and spiritual integrity from beginning to end.

Steve Bailey/Coquitlam


God article leads to debate over science, religion
By Daniel Adleman
Publish Date: 26-May-2005
As appeared in the Georgia Straight

We have to take the collapse of church and state that’s transpired south of the border as a cautionary tale [“The return of God”, May 19-26]. The religious lobby is large and powerful, and they are scheming day and night about how to impose their fairy tales and sectarian prejudices on the rest of us.

Though their ideology is archaic, their tactics are anything but. They are clever, resourceful, and quick to paint themselves as victims in order to dominate the public discourse on issues important to their world-view (a tactic that tends to work particularly well in Canada).

But once they gain a significant foothold, there’s no stopping them, and it’s goodbye secular democracy and hello state-sanctioned creationism in public schools, bigotry, abortion and stem-cell-research bans, and even active participation in America’s religious/resource wars. Everyone who cares about democracy and progress should rally to oppose this threat to secularism. It is the very nature of secular democracy that the state should never seek to force these zealots to change their ridiculous beliefs; their beliefs are protected by law. But the fire-and-brimstone crowd doesn’t play by the same rules; their missionary mandate is the exact opposite, and it would be a fatal error to sacrifice democracy and truth in order to pander to these self-proclaimed victims. Compassion for the oppressed is a markedly Canadian value. But it’s not merited here. Now is the time to slam down that window of opportunity square on their fingers.Because if they can get in, they intend to take over.

Daniel Adleman / Vancouver


Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Religion and Evolution: Understanding Jurisdiction

Recently I gave a long interview to a very bright journalist at the Georgia Straight newspaper in Vancouver. Her questions about “intelligent design” and public school science courses, reminded me of a debate I have avoided for some years. Nothing has changed since I last looked at this issue almost a decade ago.

Like the poor, the debate about whether evolutionary theory is true or not is ever with us. This is a hopelessly confused debate that often pits as opposites things that should not be opposed. Thus, one often hears about a debate on “Evolution OR Creation?” or “Evolution OR Creative Intelligence?”

One wishes these debates would evolve in a more creatively intelligent direction.

Let’s get this clear. If there is a God (a fact some affirm and others deny) there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that this God could not use evolution as a means of creation. Creation is, after all, an ongoing fact and who can say that evolution is not the way that ongoing creation works? Who says otherwise? Therefore to oppose “evolution” or “creation” in the way many do could well be both bad theology and bad science. I think it is both.

Second, there is no reason why “chance” could not be part of such an evolutionary creationism. God may not play dice, in an ultimate sense, with the universe (as Einstein famously said) but this does not mean that on a micro level things may “happen” that look like “chance” from our measuring perspectives. Neither “chance” nor design can be proven scientifically after all. Think about it. Chance, like a “miracle” is not provable or disprovable scientifically.

Science by definition cannot answer the questions of origins for this reason. Science measures and measurement requires a constant of comparison. If there is creation out of nothing (a big bang or something like that) during which “stuff” suddenly appears that wasn’t there earlier, science cannot measure it since there was, literally, “no there - there” at a critical time. Yet we seldom hear of this limit to science, preferring to deal in such fantasies as false bifurcations such as “Creation OR Evolution.”

What all this should show is that the same false dualisms just distract us from the really interesting questions. The false dualisms are just red herrings in the discussion about science and its proper jurisdiction in relation to questions of ultimacy that are beyond the jurisdiction of Science.

What is clear is that fundamentalists on both sides of the debate (those who claim too much for either theology or science) are afraid of each other because they do not understand that however God does what he does, we are unlikely to understand it fully for, if we did, we’d be God ourselves - - and that would be a problem.

Science deals with faith in its method for certain kinds of observable and measurable things. Its method involves holding its “truths” contingent upon subsequent disproval. Religious truths involve taking on faith matters that are not generally susceptible to the scientific method. Even “miracles” are recognition that there is no scientific answer either way.

Faith (small “f”) is necessary everywhere - - in science and outside it, a fact that many atheistic and agnostic scientists will deny or pretend does not exist. But let them try and order a restaurant meal or fly in a plane without it! He who wishes to do his own empirical research on an ordinary airplane flight and take nothing on faith will never leave the ground. As Newman once pointed out “to act is to assume and to assume is to have faith.”

The key to the proper teaching of science is humility all round. By theologians to avoid claiming that things must be so and so against scientific evidence (think of Galileo here) and by scientists suggesting that mere science can disprove the God hypothesis or that good science teaching does not involve pointing out the limits of the discipline (science can tell us nothing about whether there is a purpose to the universe and to life - - both are questions for philosophy and theology and science ought not to usurp them).

To the scientist who arrogantly claims that he or she is only concerned with empirical facts one can say: sorry folks, your tools aren’t big enough, you are out of your depth. Science is simply, necessarily and jurisdictionally incompetent regarding questions about universal origins and purposes and it is the ideology of scientism (a kind of intolerant scientific fundamentalism) that denies this.

What both disciplines need at all times is humility - - unfortunately there is too little of that humility around and the ignorant armies of bad theology and bad science clash by night and day, to the amusement of journalists who don’t raise the real questions, and all in all it makes it hard for the rest of us to concentrate.

Iain T. Benson©

Henry Morgentaler: an Honorary Doctorate?

So the University of Western Ontario is planning on giving an honorary doctorate to Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a man who is responsible for more deaths than the Trans Canada highway. Why would Western do this?

Well, probably because it legitimizes the ideology of abortion that has made Henry a household name right across this massively depopulated country of ours.

Thanks Dr. Morgentaler! Every child a wanted child - - or else.

Or perhaps it is because of his insight as a philosopher? In his 1981 book Abortion and Contraception, he came up with the following analogy to justify a distinction between a developing foetus and a child so that terminating the one was not the same sort of thing as terminating the other. Here is what he said:

“a brick is not a house….”

Mind you, a person must have been very lucky to have actually seen a brick turn into a house the way a foetus usually turns into a person but who is looking that closely? When one is grasping at straws, it really doesn’t matter the kind of straw does it?

No, before the generation that staked its reputation on abortion passes away it is presumably important to honour those who made the unacceptable acceptable; who made healthy pregnancies into illnesses, killing into therapy and death into a kind of life affirmation. It is important, in fact, to suggest that abortion is OK. Giving honorary doctorates sort of legitimizes things that may be, well, controversial…

It was no small order to accomplish such a feat and through dedication, sacrifice, commitment and with a fundamental zeal (and appetite for litigation) Dr. Morgentaler accomplished what centuries of medical practitioners would have rejected; he achieved what thousands of years of medicine would have deemed unethical and millions of women would have thought inconceivable.

He made killing the innocent into a rights crusade and zooming along on a wave of the Zeitgeist was the top board at the great “surf’s up” party we now call the “sexual revolution.”

Now that is worth honouring isn’t it? Well-done Western University! Gaudeamus Igitur! Stand and cheer by all means but don’t miss the chorus of hundreds of thousands of absent voices in the background.

Iain T. Benson ©