31 May 2012

doubt #5 revelation

The thing about revelation is that it presupposes something to be revealed and someone to do the revealing.  

You would have thought that in a series all about doubt that Richard Holloway would have examined this in great detail.

He doesn’t. Maybe he will return to it later, but what we were presented with in this episode was a rather shallow examination of revelation in the context of Judeo-Christian history and tradition rather than from a perspective of doubt.

Revelation is a powerful tool in the hands of narcissists and attention seekers and, to a great extent, religions are built on it.  The more dramatic and portentious the revelation, the better to pull in the frightened and the gullible.

Clod’s theory of General Revelation:

1. The purpose of revelation is to make somebody else believe something.  Something that’s been revealed to YOU but not to them.

2. It relies on, and exploits, the existence of ignorance and the natural desire of humans to seek explanation.

Most of the biblical revelation reported by the profits comes in the form of auditory or visual hallucination, interpreted dreams or some form of ‘spiritual experience’ or a combination of the above.

Clod’s theory of Special Revelation:

 1.      It makes you speshul.

So, now you are speshul, you can go full steam ahead and claim anything you want because the speshul stuff cannot be subjected to independent verification.

That this is so is born out by the fact all religions have their ‘revealed’ content and that all of it is contradictory and all of it can be conveniently ‘interpreted’ to fit an agenda.  Because all religions are essentially involved in the same line of business, you find them cooperating at a superficial level to bolster each other up.  But once doctrines lock horns, blood will be spilled.  You don’t need revelation to know this.  Revelation is just as explosive as e=mc2.

30 May 2012

doubt #4 - casting out idols

Today it was wall to wall idolatry. 

Idols idols idols.  We’ve got too many of the damn things: pop idols, screen idols, sports idols, rock idols, idle idols, island idols, big brotherly idols, jungle idols, dance idols.  Not really what Richard was talking about, although they did come into it a bit. 

Is anyone thinking we’re missing the real thing to be needful of all these idols?

The changing of the idolotrous guard started way before the sixties…but they are what I remember, in a pre-pubescent sort of a way. 

I remember it being exciting, even if I didn’t have a clue what the pill was for.  The girls looked nice.  The Beatles were F A B.  All you needed was Lurrrrve and it was a Hard Days Night and it had been a bloody awful war.... so I’m told.

The church I went to had idols, statues, icons, symbols, simulacra, images, graven or otherwise,  a solemn atmosphere, men in black who made you feel guilty and somewhat uneasy to be around. Non of it made any sense then, and it still doesn’t now.  'All you needed was love.'  The church could have responded.... ‘No, you need God too,’  which might have been better than saying... ‘Who needs love when you have power and control,’ which is not what they did say, but then, they didn’t really need to. 

But I’m digressing.  Richard said today, that there is, somewhere buried deep inside us, both the need to build up our idols and to cast them down once they’ve passed their sell by date.  The shelf life of todays idols is exceedingly short.

The same process goes on in religion: we set up Gods in our image, but then don’t like what we see in the mirror, and cast them down to be replaced by another image that reflects us in a better light.

He tells us the story of the Golden Calf, whereby Aaron, having got fed up of waiting for Moses to come back from his chin-wag with God on Mt. Sinai gathers up all the bling he can from wives and girlfriends and casts it into an image of God, a golden calf, that they can all grok.
“These are your Gods, Oh Israel, who bought you up out of the land of Egypt.’

The people needed an image of God that they could relate to, rather than the intangible, abstract, far away God that Moses was always harping on about.  They wanted something they could look at, touch, experience. 

The whole point is that God is not tangible.  Images don’t do any good…what image could you make?  Concepts don’t do any good.  God as concept is no good. People spill blood and fight over concepts all the time

“In place of a God who is literally or physically ‘UP THERE’, we have accepted as part of our mental furniture, a God who is spiritually or metaphysically ‘OUT THERE’.  But suppose such a super being ‘OUT THERE’ is really just a sophisticated version of ‘The Old Man In The Sky’?  Have we seriously faced the possibility that, to abandon such an idol, may in the future be the only way of making Christianity meaningful?  Perhaps after all, the Freudians are right, that such a God, the God of Christian popular theology…is a projection.
(John Robinson – Bishop of Woolich – 1963)

“But, what If,” asks Richard, “what if, at the end of this process of overthrowing idols and shattering illusions, nothing is left?  What if we finally make it to the temple of intellectual and spiritual purity, purged of all illusions, and we find it empty?”

Well, obviously, you go and have a nice cup of tea, silly!

I think I know where he’s going with this….. some sort of post-christian compromise that preserves a place in the temple for ‘something’, even if we’re not to give it a name anymore.

29 May 2012

doubt #3

In part two we do a bit of time travelling to speculate about where the beginning of belief and of doubt may come in the human story. 

Today, some people claim that you won't find many atheists in foxholes; Richard suggests that you wouldn't have found any AT ALL in the caves where our ancestors sheltered from the terrors of the wilderness. 

It does seem plausible that, as soon as evolution gave us the ability to reflect, to be self-aware, that our primordial fears would have intensified greatly. We have the beginnings of reason, but it's hard to reason away a nightmare, the terrors of nature, the dangers of the night, the mystery of illness and the sheer fickleness of fate. 

All that stuff is still with us isn't it?  Anyone who has children knows this, even if they've forgotten, (or blocked out), the primordial fears of childhood.  It's all there still, lurking away in the depths of our lizard brains, waiting to be triggered by some modern, (or some old), calamity of life.

But this is now and that was then.  Then, there was no cognitive tool box with the drill of reason or the ratchet of science with which to construct some sort of understanding of an incomprehensible world, and the goto short cut for that sort of situation is to make stuff up. Any explanation is better than no explanation, neh?

As Richard speculates "What was it like for my forbears 50,000 years ago, as reflective self-consciousness began to fire into existence in their brains?  Was it frightening to be subject to these flashes of awareness?  Or was it more like a slow climb to wakefullness out of sleep?  Does that hyper active agent detection device or defense mechanism explain the emergence of primitive religion, a clan-like response to the dangers of existence?"

I don't know.  Maybe.  It seems likely that primitve animistic superstition could morph fairly easily into more rigid forms of belief, especially when settled agrarian communities grew up to replace nomadic tribalism.  It can't have taken wannabe leaders long to realise what an extremely powerful tool for social control they had in a system of belief which placed authoritative control in an unseen power over and above themselves, which that leader, as it happens, has a hotline to.  The divine right of kings. All that.

"Over the years we saturated the earth with blood to keep our Gods quiet."

"So far," Richard continues, "this is what we might call reactive religion - an instinctive response to perceived danger with little thought behind it. But now we come to one of the earliest religious theories: Superstition, which was the way we explained natural processes to ourselves before we fully understood how the world worked."

and to quote Baron d'Holbach.......

"If we go back to the beginnings of things, we shall always find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that imagination, rapture and deception embellished them; that weakness worships them; that custom spares them; and that tyranny favors them in order to profit from the blindness of men.

"Superstion... was a way of making sense of suffering, chaos and misfortune.  Traces of it remain in modern consciousness."

I think things are slightly back to front here.  But only a bit.  I take issue with the line "Traces of it [superstion] remain in modern consciousness."  I would take that much much further and say that the modern world is still RIDDLED with superstition and that we are a long long way from letting that go.  It is evident in all the animistic religions like Shinto and Paganism, evident in all the attraction towards paranormal phenomena, towards ESP, tarot, rhunes, fortune telling, conspiracy, spiritualism, UFO's, new-agey woo woo and all the rest of it.

As an explanation for fortune and fate, for good or ill, nature spirits and sprites and kami and ghouls and gods and demons will do very well.  You may be able to influence them, have some measure of control, invoke their protection and blessings. "The Lord shall not forsake his faithful ones, the righteous shall be kept safe forever. But the children of the wicked shall be cut off."

It isn't that clear to me why Richard now makes a longish incursion into the book of Job, but he does make a rather exceptional claim about it. Essentially, we are dealing with the problem of evil, which is a huge topic, and Richard recognises that Job does not leave us with any new explanation for suffering or misfortune, nor does it stop people from being superstitious, but.... "What it does do, is to rule out the theory that suffering is a  punishment for sin."  And, "Job's challenge to god makes him one of the earliest doubters on record."

No, and no.  While a reading of Job is required here, it must still be obvious to everybody that pays attention to modern religious commentary, (never mind the old),  that the theory that suffering is a punishment for sin is very much alive and kicking.  There is a shed load of religious commentary from all faiths that attest to this, and I am surprised he makes this claim here.  Also, it's my impression that Job never doubted God, more, that he just chose to keep faith with him, despite the temptation to say STFU. 

The problem of evil is going to rear its ugly ahead again soon so lets not get too deep into that yet.

So, Richard suggests that the two factors that have diluted the power of superstition in our time are the change from nomadic to settled community and our increasing ability to understand cause and effect i.e. a more scientific understanding of the way the world wags.

"....For most of our life, we human beings were nomads, we accepted that we were transients.  When we settled down in one place and built stone houses, our religion, and our sense of ourselves, began to look for constancy and stability and we forgot the old sense of transcience."

Maybe we did.  But I say again, we might have achieved some of that, but we did NOT, and have not, let go of superstition.  I think he is either quite wrong about that or I am misunderstanding him.

Richard ends todays piece "...and one of the ways we satisfy our craving, [for certainty], is by manufacturing comforting images we could get our heads round and our hands on.  The great Hebrew liberator Moses hated them....he called them idols."

Ooooo. Scary! I don't know where that's going tomorrow....but the omens look good ;-)

28 May 2012

doubt #2

Doubt is contingent on knowledge and there is never, as far as humans go, complete knowledge, omniscience. We might desire complete knowledge (for the avoidance of doubt), but we cannot have it, which is maybe why gods have that attribute thrust upon them.

But it's not only contingent on knowledge is it?  Because we are empathic creatures, because we are both rational AND emotional, because we are ethical and because we don't live alone. 

If I am a surgeon and know that, if I operate, there is a chance you will live, but the possibility, perhaps probability, that you won't, it seems natural and right to have doubt, to be uncertain, to question, to be hesistant.  Doubt is often uncomfortable but it is essential to doubt... and doubt as hard and as fully as possible until it's crunch time.  Then you need courage.

Descartes chose to doubt everything, absolutely everything, until he arrived at the one conclusion he was sure of  - 'I think, therefore I am.'  I doubt he was that sure of that either:  isn't he still left with the question What Is I?

Nevertheless, it is the sort of doubt that science embraces and that religion is scared of.  Doubt is the lifeblood of science, because we now know very well that both our thoughts and our perceptions deceive us all the time.  Faith is the lifeblood of religion, because?


Richard Holloway began his twenty part series examining the history of doubt today (weekdays at 13:45 on the home service).   I have my doubts about this, but I’m sure it will be interesting.

He begins with a look at Paul Gauguin’s painting ‘D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous (Where do we come from, what are we doing and where are we going?’), painted in Tahiti in 1897.  Gauguin felt it was his best work.  I doubt that: not that he felt it was, but that it was.  But doubt appreciation is a bit like art appreciation, very subjective.

Anyway I like Richard Holloway, I think he is an honest thinker: he has the courage to doubt, and to act on his doubt, which is arguably better than acting on faith.

I like the painting as well.  I like Gauguin’s painting generally: it has so much life and energy, colour and vitality to it.  But Gauguin was a man plagued with doubt: the big questions of life troubled him.  He suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies and maybe those contributed to him seeking out a more basic, a more primitive, simpler existence in Tahiti away from the complexities the uncertainties and tensions of turn of the century Europe.

I expect a lot of people feel the same right now too. It’s too late: we took alcohol, syphilis, trousers and the bible there a long time ago, and they must have Big Macs, Tesco Express, Liptons Iced Tea and WiFi by now.

18 May 2012


The one thing I seem certain of is that, for me, there is something that it's like to be alive; to feel wind on skin, smell coffee, hear the ducks quack or, see the red rose.  But what is it?  If you want to reduce consciousness (shall we call it experiencing instead?) to what seems to be the logical conclusion of the physicalists argument then experiencing must itself be something literally physical, like a state of electric charge or something like that.

The panpsychists argue, (if it is an argument), that at some fundamental, deep level of the material world, there is something that is conscious (or proto conscious).  What can that mean?  Given that we don't really know what matter consists of at its most fundamental level, we don't know and can't say that there is not something that it is like to be at that level; in other words, is there some experiential component already there?

That seems to be an assumption you can only make on intuitive rather than on any evidential grounds - unless one day the large hadron collider encounters something that sticks its tounge out and goes 'Boo!'

But then I would ask, if there is some experiential component built into stuff, then why, in such a vast universe of 'stuff', does there seem to be so little consciousness?  Or maybe there is a vast amount of consciousness that we just don't know about.

Then there is the possibility that if consciousness IS physical and you could one to one map the neural network of a brain and provide it with sufficient feedback loops and environmental sensors in a box containing zillions of silicon chips, then at what stage would you have to come to the conclusion that the thing WAS conscious?  That it would be able to have 'feeling', to know that there is something that it is like to be what it was.  That's spooky!

That would have profound moral implications - but, in a way, it already does because of the casually cruel and gung ho way in which we entitle ourselves to treat creatures who we deem to have a bit less consciousness than we seem to have.

The Mind is Physics - Guest Post by Steve Zara

“I speak the truth”.  It’s a brief statement.  Imagine yourself saying it.  Hear the words.  This seems like hardly anything, and yet what you have just done is deep in meaning and has rich and strange implications.  I’ll be dealing with just one of those, which is to do with the nature of mind, and the strange business of qualia - qualities of experience - and what they can and can’t be.

How can such a simple act, speaking a phrase and recognising its meaning, have anything significant to reveal about the mind?  To see why, we need to think like aliens for a bit.

We are aliens, visiting Earth.  We have picked up radio signals broadcast just a little way across the galaxy, just a few tens of light years, and we have traced their origin to this blue planet.  We haven’t managed to decode the signals completely, but they seem to contain information about a species of intelligent ape.  Some of the earliest signals suggest that the apes are starting to enter the Jazz age, and so we are keen to see how things develop.  We arrived at Earth, engaged the appropriate stealth devices, and are now examining these humans.  They communicate mainly by vocalisations.  Our (undetectable and painless) probes reveal how this happens. We can see how the muscles in the face and neck react to electrochemical signals sent along nerves from a brain.  We have started to trace these signals through the millions of neural networks in the human brain so we can reverse-engineer how brain activity results in sounds.

Nothing about this (probably) fictional scenario is beyond science.  It’s a kind of thought experiment.  We can see where we get with it.  This is where I want to try and get: is the project to trace all the signals through the brain feasible?  Is it possible to say why we humans move our mouths and make sounds only taking into account what happens in and between brain cells and nerves?  It has to be possible, at least in principle.  This doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.  This might be like that it’s possible, in principle, to count all the grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth. It doesn’t matter, though, if it’s like that.  It just has to be possible in principle.  Assume it is, for now.  This is a thought experiment after all.

If we assume that we can trace through the brain all the signals that result in our words, then this means that the words we speak have at least two meanings.  The first is the meaning of the words, the meaning we put into the words through the act of speaking our minds.  The second is that the words are there because of muscle twitches due to patterns of nerve activity resulting from things going on in our brains.  The words indicate that brain activity.  And so, those aliens wanting to find out why we humans make the noises we call speech can get an answer in terms of nothing more than signals in our brain.  It may be a very, very complicated answer because it involves perhaps millions of brain cells doing what brain cells do. As brain cells can have many thousands of connections to other brain cells, it does seem likely that such an answer would be very complicated indeed.  Let’s give this assumption a name.  Let’s call it the Alien Answer Hypothesis: the suggestion that our speech can have an explanation in terms of only what brain cells do.

Now we have got that out of the way, let’s look at what it means for us to hear our own words (or see them written down) and to believe that they express a truth.  When we are used to hearing or reading a language, we don’t have to put much work into getting the meaning.  Even though it seems effortless, a lot is going on in our brains, as physical signals are interpreted.  That’s the key thing here - physical signals.  Something rather amazing happens when we speak, write or express ourselves in other ways, such as through song, or gesture.  We are translating what is going on in our minds into the physical world.  An entirely physical part of reality contains our meaning.  When we recognise that meaning, we are implicitly acknowledging the power of the physical to contain our meaning. (at least those of us who don’t believe that we live entirely in our minds).

Now, on to one of the most discussed aspects of consciousness: qualia.  A ‘quale’ is a part of conscious experience: a quality of experience.  It is the sweet smell of vanilla, the redness of a red rose, the sound of a musical note, the tingle of a touch.  It’s what gives us the experience of being conscious.  Well, almost.  We can experience qualities of experience (see how language gets rather tied up when dealing with the subject of mind?  This is a common.. experience!) in dreams, so we should really use a word other than ‘conscious’.  Perhaps ‘awareness’?  But anyway, I hope you get the idea.  It’s a unit of experience.  Qualia seem mysterious once you start to think about them.  Why are they there?  Why does red look like that, and not like something else?  Such questions have been asked by philosophers and scientists for a very long time.  Some who have asked them believe that qualia, the qualities of experience, are so different from anything else we know about that they cannot be explained by physics.  After all, why should what atomic particles do result in us experiencing the redness of red?  It seems quite beyond all possible explanation.   What I’m going to try and show is that this opinion of qualia is mistaken.  I’m going to try and how something that many may think is mind-blowing (at least it explodes many ideas of what our minds are).  What I’m going to try and show is that qualia must be explainable by physics, and that to think that there is some extra aspect of reality involved is wrong.  I may not get there, but I’m going to try. (This is an extremely presumptuous thing to do, as qualia remain the subject of intense ongoing debate.  But I’m going to try anyway).

Imagine you say ‘I see a red rose’, and you are actually seeing a red rose.  Those words are true.  Not just that, but you recognise your own words as true.  You have accepted that your words are a correct representation of your thoughts and beliefs.  Hold onto that fact.  It’s important.  Now, why are you saying ‘I see a red rose’?  It’s because you have the experience of the red colour of what you recognise as a rose, and you have decided to announce that fact.  You have announced in the form of sound patterns that you have experienced a quale - the redness of the rose.  The explanation for you saying ‘red’ is the experience of red.  This sounds quite obvious, but this matters.  It matters because we are saying that a quale - the experience of red - causes your speech.  All perfectly clear.  You have a think about the strangeness of qualia, and as a result you say ‘Qualia can’t be explained by physics’.  You would be far from alone in this.  You recognise your own words as expressing what you believe to be true.  But, things are starting to look pretty weird.  In your previous statement, what you said was a result of the experience of redness.  That is straightforward.  But what is the cause of your second statement, the one about qualia not being explained by physics?  This is getting a bit murky.  What is it exactly about qualia that leads to this belief?  What is the ‘not explainable’ quality of a quale?  This is very hard to pin down, and many have tried.  It’s confusing because we are trying to describe the quality of a quality, and we don’t have anything to compare it with.  If you don’t believe that qualia can be explained by the physical, have a think about this question - what would qualia be like if they could be explained by the physical?  

But now, let’s go back to the Alien Answer Hypothesis.  If we accept it, then the words ‘I see a red rose’ have an explanation only in terms of physical brain cell activity, and nothing else.  It’s going to be a vast and complex explanation, but it exists, if we accept the hypothesis.  But if such a purely physical explanation for the words exists, then qualia must be physical.  That seems a huge leap, but it really isn’t.  If there exists a purely physical explanation for the words, then there seems to be no room for any non-physical extras.  That purely physical explanation seems to contains everything about why the words were spoken.  Of course, the Alien Answer need not be the only answer as to why we spoke.  This may seem contradictory, but it isn’t.  We don’t consider thoughts and speech in terms of individual brain cell activity and individual sounds, just as we don’t consider waves on the sea in terms of individual water molecules.  More than one reason for something physical happening can be true, but once you have found one of those reasons and what is going on in terms of the substance, you have pretty much excluded any other ingredients.  Once we discovered water molecules, there was no more room in the world for water sprites, no matter how strangely the waves may dance.  The sound waves of our speech are composed of the movement of air molecules, moved around by the actions of our muscles, triggered into movement by electrochemical signals from our nerves.  The nerves trigger because of signals from the vast networks of cells in our brains.   Is this a proof that there is nothing but physics going on?  No, it isn’t.  There could be more than physics, but it would have to be a strange extra factor, because it would have to have no overall effect as compared to the answer consisting of only physics.  There could be something extra, but the presence of your spoken words cannot be taken as evidence for such extra thing, because that extra thing doesn’t change the words from what they would be if there was only physics.

So, if you accept the possibility of the Alien Answer, then you have problems if you continue to think that there must be more to mind than physics, if you insist that there really must be more. The first of these problems is how you would convince the aliens of this.  You can say that there is some extra quality of the experience of colour that is beyond physics, but the aliens could respond that they have looked hard at their analysis of what is happening in your brain, and see nothing but physics there.  Nothing but physics.  Now, here is where it gets really interesting.  The Alien Answer Hypothesis asserts that all speech can be traced back through the brain purely in terms of physics.  That means ALL speech.  You, still a believer that something extra is involved in mind, respond to the aliens by saying “You don’t understand, there is some special quality of experience that your analysis doesn’t capture”.  But the speech of this very statement can itself be explained by physics alone.  No matter how much you protest, no matter how much you might argue, every single statement you make has a physical cause.  The more you talk, the more evidence you get back from the aliens that there is nothing but brain cell physics going on.

Now let’s move things on.  I chose to use aliens as the beings who would analyse our brains because they would (in my scenario) initially not understand our language, so they could analyse what causes speech without any assumptions that it was anything but raw noise.  They might even find it surprising when they discover that the noises are sonic codes for thoughts.  I wanted to highlight the dual meaning of the sounds.  But now, let’s get rid of the aliens (in a polite way, of course).  They have left their technology behind, and we can use it.  You can use it.  Every time you speak, you can get a full report of why those noises were produced from their machines.  How would you react if you said “I see a red rose” and you could see that there was a purely physical explanation?  How would you react if you said “there is something strange about qualia” and you could also see that there was a purely physical explanation?  You might still have a feeling that something is missing somewhere, but it’s hard to see where this could be.  You have the intention to say the words based on what is in your mind, you say the words, which, on hearing them, you can be sure are the words you spoke, and these words contain the meaning you wanted to put into them, and at the same time you can see that there is a purely physical explanation for why you made those sounds. No matter what you say about what you know, what you feel, what you experience, all those words have at least one explanation which involves only brain cells interacting.   And so, if you believe in physics, nothing you ever say can be considered as evidence for there being anything more than physics in the mind.  No matter what arguments you put forward for how things must be more than material, or what it feels like to be conscious and have subjective experience, none of those arguments work if you accept that you can express the truth of your arguments as words.

If you really wanted your mind to be more than physics, you could always reject the Alien Answer Hypothesis.  However, that hypothesis isn’t making any unreasonable assumptions.  The hypothesis is based on the findings of centuries of science, including the discovery that we are biochemical beings: our bodies are made up of the same particles that exist elsewhere in the universe.  Indeed, as Lawrence Krauss has pointed out, our bodies are made up of atoms in close to the same proportions as those atoms exist in the universe.  There is no life force, just biochemistry and physics working it’s own purely natural kind of magic.  The hypothesis is also based on the discovery that we are evolved beings, having been shaped by our environment and our fellow organisms for billions of years.  We are built from ordinary stuff.  Our bodies don’t involve interactions with exotic particles, or strange quantum mechanical behaviour on anything but molecular scales.  We are biological systems working using the physics of the every-day, there is no room for strange phenomena to infiltrate our bodies and provide a ghost in the machine.

And so, if you accept science and what it has found out about the world for the past few centuries, then you can’t be consistent and insist that our minds are more than matter, that the queerness of qualia points to something non-physical.  It just doesn’t work!

The position of those who want minds to be more than the material world reminds me of one of my favourite M. C. Escher works:

The dragon is struggling to pull itself out of flatness, to become three-dimensional.  But no matter how much the paper on which it is drawn is cut and folded, the dragon remains trapped on it.

There is probably little about our minds that is as we think it is.  That should be no surprise.  We aren’t born experts about what goes on in our bodies.  So why should we gain much insight about what it is like to be mind in brain from being that mind?

05 May 2012

Charge of the Light Sussex Brigade

Funny things.  They charge out and then charge right back.."where's the grub, where's the grub"  Cluck, gobble, squawk, quack.

04 May 2012

Why Female Genital Mutilation Continues - Guest Post

This re-post from my friend from the guild of master rhubarberers because it makes me feel physically sick that the practices described in the articles he links to can go on here...never mind anywhere else.

When is a good time to talk about human rights abuses against children? Actually, when isn’t?

You might have seen some pieces on Sunday 22nd April 2012 in the Telegraph, the Independent and the Guardian about a wonderfully rich religious/cultural practice called female genital mutilation (or, if you prefer the slightly more palatable TLA, FGM). If you’re thinking, “that sounds pretty gruesome”, that’s because it is.

Don’t worry if you missed these stories; it’s probably because there were some equally important items about a series of minor sporting events being staged in and around our capital city this summer on a £12bn shoestring, or – shock, horror – dishonest and corrupt MPs in the pocket of equally dishonest and corrupt corporations in the pocket of dishonest and corrupt MPs.

That female genital mutilation is not one of the most pressing issues of our time is a moral outrage of the highest order. I often find that when I bring up the topic – never for shock factor or to be controversial, but simply to raise awareness amongst friends, colleagues and family – people just aren’t interested. So here I consider some reasons why this practice – literally the cutting edge of hundreds of years of combined religious/cultural/voodoo medical expertise – not only takes place in the United Kingdom in 2012, but why it gets such an appallingly easy ride. As an additional exercise I’ve attempted to set out the reasons on an increasing scale of moral abdication. If you disagree with the order then just ignore that and concentrate on the actual reasons.

1. Lack of awareness. The solution here is simple: carry on talking and don’t stop talking until vaginas stop getting mutilated.

2. People are aware it happens but they’re too easily persuaded by religious/community “leaders” (I prefer the term, “village idiot elders”) and by those in the media who do their bidding, that FGM is harmless or justified. The solution here is for everyone to stop pandering to these so-called leaders and accepting their assumed jurisdiction to relieve others of their human rights for their own twisted ideologies. “Leaders”, you say? Funny, I don’t recall receiving my polling card. Did you get yours? Do you think the pre-pubescent and barely pubescent girls ever got theirs?

3. People allow a tsunami of muddled, culturally-relativist, post-modern bullshit to wash over them. At a stretch this thinking is possibly well-intentioned but in all cases it’s utterly misguided and dumb:

“Who are we to impose our western values on those from different cultures?”

Who are we? We are human beings who condemn in the strongest possible terms any physical and mental harm against our fellow human beings – especially those who are vulnerable and powerless. And we say that the rule of law, the human rights of the individual, and our western liberal democracy is far, far superior to the ignorant, primitive law(lessness) of the jungle and the sand dunes.

“We value religious and cultural diversity.”

Correct, but that is not the same as diversity of human rights on the basis of religion or culture, which we certainly do not or should not value. Or to use my formula from a previous post:

Sn(r,c,e): l(Hr) = √FA


Sn is significance
r,c,e is religious, cultural, ethnic or other grouping
l is level
Hr is human rights
FA is fuck all

“This will marginalise Muslims.”

No, it won’t. It will marginalise and criminalise Muslims who butcher young girls in their care with sharp implements. It will de-marginalise and empower the young girls by bringing them in from the cold, miserable, legal no-man’s-land they currently inhabit.

4. People are aware it happens and they think it’s wrong, but the very subject matter is so hideous they want to avoid thinking about it, let alone talking about it (just watch people instinctively cross their legs, screw up their face and physically shudder at the mention of FGM). Sure, there are other things I would rather think and talk about, too, but the girls aren’t spared the practice as they don’t have a choice or a voice, so I think we owe it to them to deal with it on their behalf.

5. People disapprove of the practice but are too scared to speak out lest they be called racist or – yes, that word again – Islamophobic. The irony here is twofold: sitting idly by while young defenceless girls with black or brown skin have their genitals irreversibly mutilated against their will, for no objective medical reason or benefit, is an extreme form of racism. And if such a concept as Islamophobia actually even exists, then not being remotely concerned about violence to young girls’ intimate parts in the name of Islam might just be an example of it.

6. Anything that is seen as non-western or anti-western is, well, cool, regardless of any intrinsic harm that might be taking place. And it’s all probably our fault anyway, because of our colonial history and our decadent, imperialist, godless, capitalist, consumerist, nihilistic, selfish, and generally non-Sharia-compliant lifestyles.

7. Neat, undiluted racism: “This is just happening to girls whose families are originally from places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Sudan and Saudi, right, and not to white girls? Couldn’t give a fuck, mate.”

These seven factors – I am sure there are more – merely galvanise that which is produced by a violently perfect storm, for FGM is but one hazardous by-product of affording religious and other primitive beliefs an elevated, unquestioned status over time.

When such beliefs are faithfully transmitted over and over again through the vehicle of childhood indoctrination and then further reinforced by official and unofficial power infrastructures which ruthlessly stamp out dissent or even discussion from within and without, it’s entirely unsurprising to see something like FGM develop and flourish: a shining example of what religions and other ignorant belief systems manage to do so incredibly successfully.

Religion and children? Yep, cracking idea. I can’t think of anything that could possibly go wrong.

The Rhubarb of our Discontent #2

As suggested by my comrade from the guild of master rhubarberers  - here is the recipe for Rhubarb and Vanilla Jam...

Rhubarb & Vanilla Jam
1kg rhubarb , weighed after trimming, cut into 3cm (or smaller) chunks
1kg jam sugar (or 1kg caster sugar plus 1 x 8g sachet pectin)
2 vanilla pods , halved lengthways
juice 1 lemon

Put a small plate in the freezer.

Put the rhubarb into a preserving pan or your largest saucepan with the sugar and halved vanilla pods. Heat gently, stirring, until all the sugar has dissolved, then squeeze in the lemon juice and increase the heat.

Boil for about 10 mins, skimming off the scum as you go (the fruit should be soft). Test for setting point by spooning a little onto your chilled plate. After 1-2 mins, push your finger through the jam - if the surface wrinkles it is ready, if not, keep cooking for 2-min intervals, testing in between. (Or if you have a sugar thermometer it should reach 105C)

Once the jam is ready, let it cool for about 15 mins before ladling into warm sterilised jars and sealing. Will keep for 6 months in a cool, dark place. Not so much in your tummy...

03 May 2012

The Rhubarb of our Discontent

Clod's Brown Sauce

1kg rhubarb
500g onions
2 red chillies
2 cloves garlic
300g cooking/sour apples (peeled)
30g fresh ginger (chopped or grated)
1 tblsp ground ginger
1 tblsp paprika
150g sultanas (or any comb of dried fruits)
500ml red wine vinegar
1kg demerara sugare (or mix muscavado + white)
1 tblsp salt

Chop rhubarb into ½” pieces roughly
Chop apple, onions, chillies, garlic
Tip it all in a large pan with everything else

Bring to boil & simmer for 45mins until it’s a brown mush.
Let it cool then liquidise it.

Bottle it.  Wait 1 month, preferably 2 before eating

If you use dates..cut down on the sugar.  If you like hot…add more chilli.

Buy a pie and smother it with this and eat it…….nom nom nom