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The PC Spy
A Softer World
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December 12th, 2010

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01:11 am - "The things I want to say to you get lost before they come."
There's a weighty moral issue I've been grappling with these past few days. Around five, maybe six years ago, I set up a monthly donation to the NSPCC. Back then I was a poor student. I mean, not poor as students go, but poor as people in general go. I'm still poor as people in general go, but less so.

Actually no, I don't consider myself poor. Legally, like from a "any persons earning less than x per annum is officially poor" perspective, I think that yes, yes I am definitely poor, but I am 25, renting a room in a good house, I've got a good job providing me with enough disposable income to buy DVDs on impulse and as soon as Harriet has bills sorted so I know how much I owe her, I'm going to buy that lovely TV I keep telling you all about. That's going to set me back, sure, but I'm going to buy it outright, no monthly payments at x billion per cent interest rates. I don't like owing money to anyone. I don't have any dependants. I'm not trying to raise a family. I don't even have a girlfriend wanting expensive presents. I am not stressing over money at all, thus while I am not wealthy, I don't consider myself poor.

So my initial monthly donation was not a lot. I know that tesco or asda - I can't remember which one, your marketing has failed - would have me believe that every little helps, but I really feel my gesture was token at best. I am better off now and thought it was maybe about time my donation reflected that. It's still not great, I'll admit, but now it at least covers the cost of all the junk mail they send me.

My feelings and attitudes towards religion have been changing recently. As a teen my opinion was "it's stupid you're stupid" because even as a teen I could use "it's" and "you're" correctly. Then I grew older and my opinion became more of a "as long as you're not hurting anyone, do whatever you like" kind of thing.

Today though, I am frustrated. There's a term I read a lot, 'New Atheism', to describe the polemic of authors and journalists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and I'm not sure I go that far, but I'm borderline. Hitchen's book God is not Great is, along with AC Grayling's What is Good?, next in my reading pile. I've got two fiction and one creative non-fiction on the go at the moment, so a complete break from fiction is planned next. Back when I did that one module on philosophy at university that I enjoyed so much it made me regret my choice of course, Ethics was one of the sections I found most interesting. So many of the laws of Western society come from the teachings of the bible and the role of the church, how do you build a just, fair and ethical system of laws when you take all the God out of it? It's actually kind of hard. But then, it's just as flawed, if not more so, when you put the God back in.

Plato describes an argument between Socrates and Euthyphro. Socrates was tried for Impiety (found guilty and sentenced to death, choosing to accept the judgement rather than flee he became one of the first martyrs for the cause of Free Speech). Euthyphro was a deeply religious man so Socrates asked him to define Piety, thus he might better form his defense. The resulting conversation has burrowed it's way inside me and clings to the core of all I dislike about religion: the Supernatural aspect gets in the way of the good it (sometimes) promotes.

After some definitions and challenges to them, Euthyphro declares that a Pious act is one that pleases all Gods, an impious act is one that all Gods dislike. This was ancient Greece. They had a whole bunch of Gods back then. It can equally be applied to monotheistic religions like the Abrahamic ones. An act that is Good is one the God approves of. An Evil act is one God disapproves of. The question Socrates then asks is this: Do the gods like this act because it is pious, or is it pious because they like it? The first assumes piety to be independant of the Gods. Their existence defines it, but it would be equally good without them. The second makes the system arbitrary: This thing is Good, this thing is Evil. There's no rationale or logic behind it, it's merely the whims of a fickle God or pantheon.

I believe people are good. I believe people, generally speaking, want to do good and choose to do good things. I believe they choose to worship God because they think he is good and it is good. Thus we can discount him being fickle and irrational. These aren't stupid people. I feel this whole post is very one sided and if you're religious you might see it as an attack on you, and that's not the intention. These people aren't stupid. You're not stupid. If God's wishes were irrational at some point you'd stop and say "hey, just what's going on here?"

And since you haven't and since billions of people now and for the past thousands of years haven't given up, we are left with the first definition, that God says these things because they are Good, and they are good regardless of his existence or not. And if we as humans can use our logic and our reasoning to tell what is good and what is not, then Good must be Logical and Good must be Rational. Good must be something that we, as thinking, debating, logical, reasoning, passionate, creative, curious, majestic and beautiful human beings can reach out to on our own. Something we can carve on our own stone tablets and hold up to the world to shout "This is Good. This is not something we believe, this is something we know."

I love America. Not all of it, but there's two things enshrined in their constitution that I absolutely adore. Well, there's many things, but two that I want to talk about here: Freedom of Expression being the first, Separation of Church and State being the second. In the United States of America you can believe anything you like and you can stand up and tell people "this is what I believe" but you can't make them believe it too. You can't even make them listen. How well that works in practice is something of an issue, but on paper it's fucking marvellous.

That's how I'd like all society to be. Faith being something entirely personal, with no reward or punishment for being of one faith or another or none at all. No state sponsored faith schools. No tax breaks for religious institutions. No Creationism taught in science classes, no Intelligent Design taught at all, no calls for bans on Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye or my own personal favourite book, third on the American Library Association's list of the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Just a society where everyone is free to read what they want and think what they want and give their own time and support and personal wealth - not the State's - to whatever charity, church, or organisation they choose.

That's how I'd like all society to be, but that's just my opinion. As you might be able to tell, it's something I feel quite strongly about and so I'd like to take my personal wealth and give some of it to an organisation that is working towards my perfect society: The British Humanist Association, a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. You can read their philosophy here, the Amsterdam Declaration 2002. It's a wonderful sentiment. A while back I was thinking of getting a tattoo on my wrist, I only didn't because I couldn't think of a design I liked that I knew I'd like years later. Right now I'm thinking the Humanism logo, the Happy Human. It'd be like an anti WWJD bracelet, because every time I looked at it I'd think "What would I do? What is ethical and just and right because there is nothing else: I have to make this decision and I have to live with the consequences."

Since this post is ultimately about Charity, let me say this: One argument I've seen many times in defense of religion is the charitable works these organisations call for from their members. Fuck that. People do charity because people are good. I've never done anything in the name of God, so what is it when I give to charity, a fucking accident?

So now that weighty moral dilemma I promised you about two hours ago when I started writing this: Charity is about sacrifice for a greater good. Charity is about taking your own stuff, be it money or time or whatever, and using it to Make Things Better for everyone. As firmly as I stand by humanism, as much as I do believe a diminished role of religion in society will Make Things Better, isn't that money better off going to a more worthwhile charity? And so: what makes a charity worthwhile?

The NSPCC do good work. If you're not aware of them, the NSPCC are a British charity, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. One of the many wonderful things they've done is set up Childline, a number (0800 1111) any child who is a victim of bullying or abuse or any form of cruelty can dial to speak to someone who will listen and who will help. I don't care who you turn to to define right and wrong: God, Kant, whatever, I think we can all agree that child abuse is capital 'w' Wrong. It's Bad. It's Evil and seeking to prevent it is good, it Makes Things Better.

I can't say the same for Secular Humanism. Sure I think it's good, sure I think it'll Make Things Better but despite the many atrocities religious dogma is responsible for, I can't say that religion is Evil. It may be wrong, but it's not Wrong. Can I take a portion of this money I've set aside to Make Things Better and give it to a political force, an opinion, an ideology? There's Child Abuse and Animal Cruelty and AIDs and Cancer and Heart Disease. There's Oxfam and Amnesty International. There's mental and physical disabilities, there's victims of wars and famines and natural disasters and I think all those things are undeniably worthy causes yet despite all this it's God, who I don't even believe in, that's pissing me off.

Even though either way it's a selfless act, am I being selfish choosing the BHA?

Here's the plan I'm going with at the moment, and I think I will actually put values to my donations because I read in an article somewhere recently that people are more likely to give to charity when they know how much other people are giving. I'm going to up my donation to the NSPCC to £10 per month. I'm going to give £5 per month to the BHA, and then I'll give £5 to a different charity each month. I will gladly accept recommendations.

Now I'm going to go watch the rest of the Intelligence Squared debate on whether the Catholic Church is a force for Good, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry versus Ann Widdicombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan. I don't know anything about John Onaiyekan, but Widdicombe vs. Fry and Hitchens? I almost feel sorry for her. Check out this great article Victoria Coren wrote. I've seen her on panel shows, read her column from time to time and had her tell me how stupid I am over and over again on that BBC flash game Only Connect. I'd be far more willing to listen to the pro-religion side if it came with humour like hers. Of course wikipedia tells me she's a poker champion and used to write porn reviews, so I can't see the Archbishop of Canterbury putting her forward as a role model any time soon. Shame.

I couldn't find a way to sneak it into the main body of the post, because that's all religion and charity, but here's some religion and science for you: I have, I'm sure, said a number of times that religion gets in the way of science. I was being silly then, it's not true. What I actually feel is that the deeply religious' opinion of Science is much like my opinion of feminism: I think it's great. I think equality is absolutely essential for the betterment of humankind. But regardless of that, I still enjoyed American Pie 1 and 2 when I first saw them, I still like action movies where we get to see men kicking ass and taking names to save the damsel in distress (Taken, I love you) and I still think The Social Network is a flawless piece of cinema. Anyone know any good pro-feminism charities for my January donation, to balance that out?

In his opening statement, Hitchens mentioned that the Catholic Church would not welcome Stephen Fry into it's ranks because of his homosexuality. I'm not saying everything Stephen Fry thinks is right and I'm not saying that Stephen Fry not joining means your organisation is wrong, but if you've set up a bunch of membership rules and you've banned Stephen Fry from joining your club, clearly you fucked up.

(10 parts for the wolves | Ignorance is bliss)


[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2010 03:38 am (UTC)
My understanding, as a Christian, of God's opinion on "piety" can be expressed in Jesus' summary of the law, which he gave when a pharisee asked him which of the commandments was the most important. Jesus stated: "the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength." and then "You shall love your neighbour as yourself."

The latter is, as you put it, doing Good things, and it is fairly clear that doing Good things is Good because that is the nature of things, rather than God being sat, looking over your shoulder and assigning you Gamer Points every time you complete a Piety Achievement. These things can equally be done with or without religious motivation; much of what Jesus came to teach (and, I believe, the actual nature of Heaven and Hell) is about the consequences of our actions. Much as the Green Cross Code does not suggest that drivers will run you over as punishment for not following said Code, Heaven and Hell are the consequences of human action, not the acts of some arbitrary Judge Judy floating in the sky.

Whether or not we would have realised these things on our own in a very big question that I would certainly not consider myself capable of answering; clearly, Humanism would suggest that we can, but seeing as Jesus' teaching has spread already, we can't exactly produce a control sample to test this idea. Perhaps, someday, when we encounter alien races we will come to learn more about the influence of religion on the moral and ethical truth which we now take as fact, but frankly I don't think we can make that call either way right this minute.

So what purpose does religion have, if every Tom, Dick and Muhammed already knows Right from Wrong? Consider firstly that the separation of Church and State is very different from the exclusion of the adherents of Christianity (or religion in general) from politics. I do not believe that a Bishop or senior theologian should (implicitly) have political power, much as I do not believe that media moguls, bankers or senior generals should, because that's not their job. But if an individual is motivated to do Good because they wish to be more like Jesus, that should not preclude them from a political career. Which is to say, Christianity isn't just "Good things are Good and Bad things must be Stopped because God says so", it's actually "Here's this dude that did some Good things, so let's hold that as a standard to live up to, as individuals".

Further, there is the first half of the summary of the law, about loving God. Now, subjectively, this depends pretty heavily on whether or not you believe that God exists, but the reality is that either they do or they don't. Assuming that they do (yes, that's a big assumption, work with me for a minute) then...well, I've always thought of it as an analogy to my parents. I don't have to like my parents, or thank them for what they've done for me, or even admit they exist; but if I don't, they'd be really hurt. And if God does exist, they're probably quite hurt by the number of people who deny their existence, or their role in the universe.

So if you don't believe in God, that's okay; you go and do Good things, because Christianity isn't really relevant to you - I believe that he does exist, and that a Christian lifestyle is a natural consequence of that, and so I endeavour (and frequently fail) to live that lifestyle. When considering "New Atheism", or "Militant Atheism" as I have heard it referred to, please be sure the distinguish between "evils committed in God's name" and "evils that are a necessary consequence of faith". Further, please distinguish between faith, religion, organised religion and The Catholic Church, which are all different things. In fact, if your argument is "The Catholic Church did x" (or, more accurately, "The Papacy did x"), please assume that it has no relevance to religion and is really just a throwback to the Roman Empire. That would actually help a lot.
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2010 12:53 pm (UTC)
(This is split into two comments because apparently it's too long for just one)

Man, I thought I did quite well for half midnight, but that is a very well written piece for 3am.

Firstly, I do apologise for confusing the terms. The Victoria Coren article talks about a different debate than the Intelligence Squared one, where Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair debate whether Religion - not merely the Catholic Church - is a force for Good in the world, and while Blair is Catholic and Hitchens does attack the Catholic church near constantly, Blair's defence is not of the Church but of people with Faith who do, as you say, believe Jesus to be a dude who did Good things and want to live up to his standards. I see that the way I wrote that paragraph did make it look like 'pro-Religion' and 'pro-Papacy' were one and the same. Coren describes Hitchens in the article as "brilliant, witty, fast-thinking" and wishes someone more suitable than Blair had opposed him. I was reminded of it because in the Intelligence Squared debate you had Hitchens and Fry who, if you haven't seen it, were magnificent in their rhetoric. And they were up against Ann Widdicombe. It was not a fair fight by any measure.

I'm not someone who had faith and lost it, I was never raised Christian. There were Christian teachings at the schools I went to and thinking back now on some of the school assemblies at my junior school, I'm actually a little angry at how much Christianity was told to us simply as fact. I remember one such Assembly where a teacher told us the word JOY stood for Jesus, Others, Yourself, and that was the order you should think of things in. I don't remember being angry about it at the time, so I probably didn't care much then. At home I don't think it was ever even suggested to me there was a spiritual force guiding me.

And so I don't understand faith. I look at the order Jesus gave for the Ten Commandments and Love Thy Neighbour seems far more important to me than Love the Lord your God. Society would not break down were we to all drop God from our hearts and our minds and our strength, but it would be a horrendous world where we don't hold Love Your Neighbour As Yourself as a teaching to follow. You compare God to your parents, who you love and because you love them you don't want to hurt them, so you let them know you love them. I just can't see God as a parental figure.

I agree with nearly all the modern Christian teachings. Back in I think 2005 I was attacked on my way home one night by a pair of chavs. It was a terrifying experience because I could not possibly comprehend how these two people, people who'd never met me before, who knew nothing about me other than that I had no weed to give them could be so empty of compassion for me. Some Christian lessons helped me through that. I listened to the song Second Place Victory by Christian band This Day & Age over and over. The chorus goes like this:

Let's show them how to live
Accept the pain
Always forgive
Watch the sun go down
Learn the sound of following
All that's complete

These people were taught by their religion that forgiveness and leading by example are virtues, and I agree. But I came to that conclusion from Humanist teachings. Sure, as I mentioned, Christianity was force down my throat at primary school, but had Jesus been removed I'm sure the teachers would have found some other way to explain that you put Others before Yourself.
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2010 12:53 pm (UTC)
The 99% of Christian teachings I agree with are all also Humanist teachings and we can remove the influence of Religion in society without removing ethics and without removing personal Faith. That's why I support the BHA. I may critisise religions institutions, I may critisise particular religious teachings, I will certainly critisise the Catholic church but I don't mean to attack you because you because the way you reached your conclusions on Right and Wrong is different from the way I reached mine.

I have no doubt that you try to be a Good person both as you see Good and as I see Good, you have never tried to force your faith or your religion on me and have only talked about it now because I brought it up first. Your faith clearly means a lot to you and it's not something I would wish to take away because, again from that This Day & Age song: it's breath-taking to think of you and to learn without faith the sky isn't as blue.

But I'm curious as to your opinion on the other aspect of my post: How do you compare the worthiness of charities, since that's the issue I've been thinking about. If we leave aside the teachings of the particular charity, the BHA, how do you justify giving charitable donations to your own favoured ideology rather than an organisation which is objectively Good, like the NSPCC or Cancer Research?
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2010 05:52 pm (UTC)
I always found a certain humour in the Stephen Fry's implication that the Catholic Church was clearly bad because they wouldn't let him join, as that doesn't leave much hope for the Women's Institute. But that's just me being petty...

I personally don't give money to, for example, the Church in a charitable sense. When I attend church services (admittedly a rare occurrence) I do give Collection, but that's more about the harsh reality of paying for the Church's property - as it stands, the Anglican Church owns a large number of listed historical buildings which it is legally obliged to maintain at considerable cost. Therefore, I'd struggle to speak from personal experience; especially given that the charities to which I have signed up actually won me over because the girl taking signatures was hot, and not because I felt any particular passion towards their cause. (In case you were wondering, Worst Christian Ever)

The difficulty, if not the danger, of this question lies in reducing it to its simpler form, which is "How is my money best spent?" This is difficult because you are talking about two different value structures, economic and moral, between which there is no clear translation, and dangerous because you may find yourself attempting to equate those two structures, which is a road straight to the most special of Hells. Indeed, it is that equation which is the root of so much of what has gone wrong with the Catholic church.

I will, then, take a page from Jesus' book (his metaphorical book, not his actual book) and give you an answer that in no way resembles an answer to your actual question, but will hopefully be helpful all the same.
Have you tried giving something other than money? As the nature of these two causes is fundamentally different, the means and methods by which they are achieved are different and not as mutually exclusive as "give money to X" or "give money to Y". An ideology, for example, should always be debated, never promoted; why not talk to people or write about why you find Humanism so appealing, and in doing expose your own beliefs to critical review, so that everybody learns? Why not volunteer time to help the NSPCC with their campaigns, or, God (or Darwin) forbid, spend time with actual children? Why not take in a rescue dog/cat/Creationist? I don't believe that Making Things Better is a job that can be out-sourced, so why ask who the most cost-effective subcontractor is when you could apply your own specific (and clearly known) set of skills to making a difference in a way that only you can do?

In closing, I would like to direct you to the following: this is exactly how I feel God feels (especially the last sentence), whilst this is simply hilarious.
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC)
"in the Stephen Fry's implication"? Clearly, Stephen Fry has transcended proper nouns...
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
Actual effort? You've discovered my only weakness!

My biggest problem with volunteer work is that it generally involves dealing with people, inanimate objects or animals and I'm not good with any of those things. Fortunately I can rationalise my laziness and fear and say hey, actually, I don't work a regular schedule. I rarely even get two days off together and I need actual days off free from any responsibility in order to function.

We do have a rescue cat and a rescue person already, though truth be those are both more Harriet's responsibility than mine.
[User Picture]
Date:December 14th, 2010 11:21 pm (UTC)
I really love the idea of a rescue creationist, it makes me think "don't worry, little creationist, there's still hope for you yet".

That Onion article sums up fairly accurately the way I feel about God too. I've never understood the principle of religious war, since most faiths are essentially the same set of beliefs and principles presented in slightly different ways. I would also rather do almost anything than hurt someone else, I honestly have no idea how I'd react in a war-type situation, it all just seems so wrong.

[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2010 11:30 am (UTC)
Charity-wise i'm a massive fan of http://www.map-uk.org/

If the I/P conflict isn't a massive concern for you then http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/ is also good
[User Picture]
Date:December 12th, 2010 06:28 pm (UTC)
I am a firm believer in small/local charities where you can actually see the work that goes on and you can know that your money has gone towards the cause rather than to pay somebody to get someone else to donate.
Also, and you are probably already aware of this seeing as you are capable of using Google, you can search for charities based on keywords relating to their causes so you can find things that you want to support at the Charity Commission website
[User Picture]
Date:December 14th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)
This is a great article, I really enjoyed reading it.

I think the question of which charity is more worthwhile is a very difficult one to answer. To throw something else in for you to think about, my bf gets really annoyed by adverts for animal charities, as they hae much more money donated to them every year than charities for disabled children. It's probably something to do with how cute the animals are on tv, I don't know. But my point is - if you know Charity A is much better funded than Charity B, should you give your money to Charity B even if you believe in A's cause more?

There are so many different factors to consider in this sort of debate, it eventually (f0r me) works out as "give some money to a charity and do some Good. Don't think about it too hard or you'll end up with a headache!"

I agree with whoever said that they sign up to charities because the person doing the signing-up is hot - I signed to one ago because the guy who stopped me reminded me of a guy I had a massive crush on! And just this weekend I signed up to give to Oxfam 365 because the man who came to the door was nice, and out collecting for a cause he obviously believed in in -8 temperatures and was obviously freezing but hadnt given up.

So maybe choose your charity like that. Who's the hottest? Or who do you feel more sympathy for?

In the end, though, giving what you can afford to each is probably the best way forward. Everybody wins!

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