Bread and circuses

At the bottom end of the socio-economic scale, what is happening in Britain today is what my generation thought would never happen. We had the welfare state. Anyway we were too civilised to allow it. How wrong we were. Starvation, homelessness and the criminalisation of those with no income are all continually increasing.

woman beggingThere is no shortage of evidence. Statistics abound. An example is the report of the Joint Public Issues Team representing the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches. For an example of the personal effect, see this report of a man ‘sanctioned, starved then jailed’. A good example of research on what is happening in Liverpool is the Getting By Project.

To anyone who cares for the well-being of other people all this is truly horrific, but you will be lucky to spot any such information in a newspaper or television programme. Why is it not front page news?

Because what Owen Jones calls ‘the Establishment’ in his latest book – the political class, business leaders and the mass media – are, between them, making sure most of us remain unaware.

The economic experiment the cruel dictator Pinochet conducted in Chile is now being imposed on European counties including the UK. It is wrapped up in economic theory, but the point is that, to make the rich richer, the poor must be made poorer.

A general election is only a few months away so, for a short while, public opinion matters. The three traditional techniques are being used for all they are worth.

1. Blame the victims

If we will insist on caring about the plight of the desperately poor, they give us someone else to blame. This is the age-old trick of ‘divide and rule’. The Government is distracting attention from their own cruelties by setting the employed against the unemployed. Get yourself a job, lazybones – as though anyone could go into town and just do that. By promoting a witch-hunt against welfare recipients, within a few short years the Government has turned the banking crisis into a welfare crisis. Last week Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions launched an advertising campaign to encourage us to report anyone we know who is fraudulently receiving benefits. If you think this is a sensible initiative, read this Huffington Post article.

2. Change the subject

Better still if we can be persuaded to forget about poverty. Those who are desperate for something to eat probably won’t vote anyway. Those of us who care about what is going on in the country need to be given different things to worry about. The two issues chosen for us are the European Union and immigration.

Neither of these issues is a significant factor in the present situation. The debate about the EU picks up on a bit of xenophobia, and there is no doubt some irritation in government circles that they have to abide by EU rules, but the real debate is between business leaders. Big business is a competitive world, so inevitably some favour the EU and others do not.

As for immigration, the number of non-UK citizens entering the UK is only slightly greater than the number of UK citizens choosing to live elsewhere. Migrants need some kind of income, either benefits or a paid job. Whichever they do, we can condemn them. Meanwhile, British opinion polls show that the number who think foreigners should be restricted from entering the UK far exceeds the number who think British emigrants should be sent back home.

Neither the EU nor immigration are significant contributors to the declining standard of living so many people are experiencing. They are being given disproportionate time in the media to distract us from the real reasons living conditions are getting worse.

3. Entertain us

Most of all, what they would like us to do is to ignore what they are doing altogether. We need to be distracted by what Juvenal called ‘bread and circuses’.

Juvenal was an ancient Roman satirist. This phrase comes from one of satires (10.81, written in the early second century CE). He mocks those who seek power, singling out Sejanus who governed the empire for some years on behalf of the emperor Tiberius. Sejanus was deposed when Tiberius was convinced that he was governing badly. Juvenal writes:

The head of the people’s darling glows red-hot, great Sejanus
Crackles and melts. That face only yesterday ranked
Second in all the world. Now it’s so much scrap-metal,
To be turned into jugs and basins, frying-pans, chamber-pots…
Everyone cheers. ‘Just look at that
Ugly stuck-up face,’ they say. ‘Believe me, I never
Cared for the fellow.’

Juvenal knew how seriously to take popular opinion:

If the doddering Emperor
Had been struck down out of the blue, this identical rabble
Would now be proclaiming that carcase an equal successor
To Augustus.

Tiberius was the second emperor. Before the first, Augustus, there had been a republic with Roman citizens given the vote. Since many citizens lived in desperate poverty there had been much selling of votes. Juvenal continues:

But nowadays, with no vote to sell, their motto
Is ‘Couldn’t care less’. Time was when their plebiscite elected
Generals, Heads of State, commanders of legions: but now
They’ve pulled in their horns, there’s only two things that concern them:
Bread and circuses.

What Juvenal could see then is happening now. Unlike the Romans we still have the vote, but we have become disillusioned with it. What is the point of voting, if it makes no difference? So people lose interest. Bread and circuses – food and entertainment – suffices to keep most people happy, and that is how the ruling classes consolidate their power.

So the establishment – in Owen Jones’ sense – is busy encouraging us to be satisfied with this. If we do not vote at all we do not threaten them. If we are to vote, they give us the usual range of much-publicised traditional parties; and since we protest, they give us one protest party whose only significant proposal is to exit the EU.

Meanwhile the newspapers and television programmes fill us with irrelevant entertainment to squeeze out any serious analysis. They want us to be bored with politics.

Last May, while the Euro-election campaign was in its stride, I was reading some Greek newspapers. The contrast was unmistakeable. The Greek newspapers followed the campaign and the election results in incomparably greater detail than the British ones did. As far as the British estabishment are concerned, we are to become what Juvenal despised – only concerned with bread and circuses, leaving them to do the governing.

We could stop the rot. Sadly, the method to stop them only arises once every five years. May 2015 is only a few months away. So far, the opinion polls show that their methods of distraction are working nicely. Opposition is growing, but has a long way to go.

We could vote for bread and circuses. Or we could vote to care for our fellow-citizens.

Posted in Economics, Ethics, Inequality, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The definition of marriage

I was caught out. On Thursday I was giving a talk on homosexuality to a church deanery readers’ group. I expected differences of opinion, but the big sticking-point was not what I expected.

Detail from Gay Marriage Cake by Giovanni Dall'Orto

Detail from Gay Marriage Cake by Giovanni Dall’Orto

Nobody argued that intimate same-sex partnerships were immoral. That seemed fine. What was unacceptable, to those who disapproved, was the decision to change the definition of marriage. Gays and lesbians can do what they like, as long as they do not call it marriage.

I suppose I should not have been surprised. This, after all, was one interpretation of the Church of England’s formal Response to the Government’s consultation on gay marriage. This Response, published in June 2012, is emphatic that

the intrinsic nature of marriage, as enshrined in human institutions since before the  advent of either church or state, is the union of a man and a woman.

Why does this matter? Civil partnerships are fine – they have solved all the inequality issues – but

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a   dilution  in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental   complementarity of men and women  from the social and legal definition of marriage.

Instead, I thought this argument was so weak that it would rapidly be forgotten. How silly of me. So let us examine what it means.

Meaning 1: gay partnerships are immoral because of the definition of marriage

First we define the word ‘marriage’, and then we can deduce which actions are moral and which are immoral. We have a tradition that sex outside marriage is immoral. To widen the definition of marriage is to permit sexual activity in more situations.

I suspect that many church leaders were motivated by this thought when opposing gay marriage. It is as though gay and lesbian partnerships are to become morally acceptable not because of ethical reflection on what they do but because a word has been redefined. This, they must feel, is not the way to change moral norms.

It is not indeed. But let us be clear why. On this point there is a big difference between law and morality. Governments pass laws. The judiciary apply them to individual cases. In order to do so, all they have to go on is the words. Judges do not go back 20 years to when a law was passed and ask the members of parliament what they meant; the meanings of the words are the top authority.

In moral judgements this is not the case. Since this was a Church of England meeting, I think we would have found a consensus that the top moral authority is the way God thinks we ought to behave. Not a set of words. Many people believe moral norms are not derived from God, so they need some other account of moral authority; but I have never come across anyone who thinks moral truths can be deduced simply from the meanings of words.

So for present purposes let’s stick with God. God has created us in such a way that we are free to perform morally good or evil acts. Meanwhile the definitions of words vary from one language to another. Translators know that many words are not precisely translatable. You can translate ‘rabbit’ into French accurately. ‘Chocolate’ is different; addicts know that what we call chocolate is not what they get in France. Abstract relational words have much fuzzier edges. ‘Marriage’, like ‘honour’ and ‘friendship’, can have subtly different parameters.

So let’s suppose that the French and English languages have always limited ‘marriage’ to opposite-sex relationships. Then, let us say, the English change their minds, and redefine the English word to include gay marriages, but the French do not make the equivalent change. If the moral status of the marital condition depends on the definitions of words, this means that gay marriages are now morally permissible for English speakers but not for French speakers.

Because the top moral authority is God, this means that God approves of English same-sex marriages but not French ones. Why? God is obliged to take this bizarre line, because the English have changed the meaning of the word.

It’s absurd. If you really think this is how to establish moral truths, I just hope you are not fluent in both languages.

Meaning 2: gay partnerships are fine but redefining marriage does harm

From what I remember hearing, Thursday’s opponents of gay marriage were not concerned about the physical activities of gays and lesbians. What they do is their own affair. Civil partnerships are fine. The problem lay simply in the fact that the word ‘marriage’ is being redefined. It has always been about one man and one woman, and so it should remain.

If so, this is a major liberalisation. Has the opposition to same-sex partnerships been reduced to debate about the definition of one word?

I suspect that more lies behind it. No doubt the readers were aware that the redefinition of the word ‘marriage’ (inasmuch as it is a redefinition, which is debatable) is being driven by those who positively believe gay partnerships ought to be treated the same as straight ones. So the proposal to redefine the word is being driven by a moral claim. How are the opponents of the moral claim to resist it? By resisting the redefinition. If this is what is happening, we are back to Meaning 1.

Fudge is sweet

Nevertheless these are two very different arguments, one about what gays and lesbians may do and the other about how to define a word. They have been confused with each other. If we recall the situation in June 2012, confusion was exactly what was needed.

For a long time – since well before the 1997 Global South Conference at Kuala Lumpur which expressed it explicitly – opposition to same-sex partnerships was the dominant campaign that unified evangelical opinion. From 2002 onwards the campaign against it was front-page news time and time again: the appointment of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, the proposal to appoint Jeffrey John to a bishoprick, the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire,  the order of service for same-sex blessings in New Westminster, the succession of threatening Primates’ Statements, the Windsor Report, the threats of schism in America, the actual schisms, the proposals for an Anglican Covenant.

By 2012, the mood had changed. The general public were fed up of the schismatics. Ordinary churchgoers, faced with the prospect of splits and legal battles, saw more clearly the advantage of accepting differences of opinion within the same church. Evangelical churches were finding that their opposition to same-sex partnerships was making them unpopular with young people.

The leadership had recently been defeated over the Anglican Covenant: on 24th March the diocesan votes had reached a majority against. They then faced a bruising battle over women bishops. Suddenly faced with yet another controversy, the government proposal to introduce gay marriage, they produced what in retrospect has to be admired as a brilliant confusion of issues. I doubt whether anyone thought of it like this at the time.

The Response could be, and has been, interpreted in two radically different ways. According to Meaning 1, the official line is still that same-sex partnerships are contrary to church teaching. The Church’s teaching has not changed. According to Meaning 2, What gays and lesbians do in bed with each other is no longer important. The big objection now is about how we define the word ‘marriage’. Clergy and lay readers could begin the process of forgetting what they were previously expected to believe in.

And so, step by step, the Church of England’s leadership disinvests itself of a foolish campaign against same-sex partnerships. It does so slowly, constantly claiming the moral high ground, never admitting it was wrong in the past, always retaining enough of last year’s rhetoric to save face and give the impression of continuity. Progress!

Posted in Churches, Ethics, Religion, Sexuality | 1 Comment

Does the Church still need parishes?

For churchgoers, yet another fascinating YouGov survey by Linda Woodhead for the Westminster Faith Debates. This one is about the views of Anglican clergy. Anthony Woollard comments here.

In this post I focus on the finding that 83% want to maintain the parish system, which divides England into areas served by a priest provided with a vicarage. There are also other interesting findings. A summary is here.


Pensford, Somerset

The old parish system

My awareness of the issue goes back to 1964 and the Leslie Paul Report. I was a teenager at the time, brought up in a Somerset vicarage. While I was helping to collate, fold and staple parish magazines my father told me about this new report, threatening that if current trends continued the parish system as we knew it would cease to exist.

Current trends did continue and that parish system did cease to exist. It was killed off by an endless succession of incremental changes designed to keep it going. The 83% do not know what they are missing.

50 years ago, what the parish system meant to Leslie Paul was what my father had. One parish, one Church Council, one village with a population around a thousand. He had two churches, half a mile apart, but the parish stretched for many miles. He cycled round it.

He had time to make thorough preparations for Sunday’s sermon; no leaving it to a half-hour session on Saturday evening. I don’t suppose he knew the names of everyone in the parish, but I guess he knew most. At any rate he could think creatively about the needs of the young people, the sick and the elderly, because he knew enough of them.

The bishop would make an occasional visit, but there would not be much of an agenda; the assumption was that he knew what to do and could be trusted to get on with it. One such visit took place the day after some cows in a neighbouring field had trampled down a hedge and visited the Vicarage garden. The conversation went: ‘Delicious sprouts. Did you grow them yourself?’ ‘Yes, they are the ones the cows didn’t like.’

In towns it was different. Parishes had a higher population. Not only every house but every office and factory was in a parish and visiting them was part of the vicar’s repertoire. Rural or urban, the clergy were expected to be concerned with the life and well-being of the whole parish.

The changes

No longer. With the reduction in numbers, let alone the tendency to move more often, clergy cannot know their parishes so well even if they treat it as their top priority.

Then there are the financial pressures. In 1964 they were already mounting, but the pressures were not as great as now. The programme of closing churches down to save money had not yet got into its stride.

Another difference is mobility. Especially in urban areas, they are often meaningless. Just as people live in one parish, work in another and go to social events in another again, they can choose their church on the basis of what it offers. In one of my parishes there was a housing block where the residents were in one parish in the kitchen and another in the living room. It proved convenient, as the relevant vicars had different baptism policies.

Then there is centralisation. Being a parish priest is no longer a matter of being trained and left to get on with it. The initiatives come from on high, so engaging with the parish for its own sake gets pushed down the priority list. Along with the top-down decision-making, inevitably, comes an endless stream of forms to fill in and meetings to attend – otherwise ‘they’ do not know what clergy are up to.

Threatened with decline, those responsible become defensive. Just as Rowan Williams did not want the Anglican Communion to split up while he was Archbishop, and David Cameron did not want the United Kingdom to split up while he was Prime Minister, so also, at any one time, the people running the institutional Church of England do not want the parish system to break down while they are responsible.

The result is the endless succession of incremental changes, putting two parishes into one here, reducing the number of clergy there, maintaining the pretence that the parish system continues while in reality turning it into something different. The fact that 83% of the clergy want to retain it probably just reflects the fact that it is their bread and butter: change the system and they will have to find another job and learn new skills.

Looking back in retrospect we can see what was wrong with the parish system as it was in 1964. It cost too much money and it needed too many full-time clergy. Trying to keep it running has meant ever-increasing financial pressure on the laity and ever-increasing pressure of work on clergy.

What to do instead? The key, I think, is to have far fewer full-time paid clergy, and restrict what they are expected to do.

In my view the only function that needs performing by full-time trained clergy is a teaching role. This is because the quality of teaching needs to be high – much higher than at present – so years of training are needed. It is a professional job.

By contrast, every local community has someone who would be good at leading worship, every local community has someone who is good at pastoral care, and every community with a medieval church has people keen to maintain it. These people should be formally authorised to perform their specific tasks, without any presupposition that they are thereby authorised to do anything else.

Instead of having clergy on the one hand and laity on the other, we would have a wide range of different roles. Where appropriate the wider church should provide resources and training, set parameters and pay expenses.

Much of this is happening already. However it is often hindered by the pull of the old parish system. People feel they need to ask the minister’s permission – and perhaps the minister wants to keep too much control. A clearer system establishing who is authorised to do what would help.

Keep parishes, not stipendiary priests

I therefore think we should keep parishes, keep them local, and authorise and encourage local initiatives in them. However we should withdraw from the provision of full-time stipendiary takers of services, maintainers of buildings, pastoral workers and club managers. When a local parish wants any of these, let it fund and appoint them itself as it sees fit. This change would also enable a dramatic reduction in the church hierarchy.

What would remain of the full-time stipendiary ministry would be professional teachers of Christianity; fewer, but more focused and better qualified. To pick a figure out of the air, if instead of 9,000-ish stipendiary clergy we had 500 people, around 10 per diocese, who were up to date with theological scholarship and able to articulate what Christianity has to offer to the concerns of contemporary society, the public voice of the Church of England would no longer need to be muffled by concern about managing the institution.

The main problem with this would not be the maintenance of local church services. Most of them would adapt, and it would be easier for new ones to start up. The problem would be getting the clergy to let go. They will need to be helped, but it should be possible.

I look forward to the day when the public voice of the Church is not muffled by anxieties about maintaining the institution but can express ongoing Christian reflection on who made us and how we should live. Promoted for its own sake, devoid of vested interests, it could offer a positive contribution to society’s current agonisings over its values and priorities.

Posted in Churches, Religion | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Assisted dying and medical technology

This is the third of a series of three posts on assisted dying. The first discussed the sanctity of life, the second the spookiness of death. This one is about the role of medical technology. As in the other two, I focus on what seems to me to be a blind spot in modern society’s understanding, in the hope that the ethics of assisted dying may be illuminated.

operationAssessments of modern technology are much debated. For some, it constitutes progress. For others, it enables the powerful to keep ahead of others. (See, for example, Y H Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, London: Harvill Secker, 2014; or John Gray’s arguments against the notion of progress, e.g. in Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions.) What is not disputed is that the emphasis on technology distinguishes modern western society. It has produced a sense of superiority over other societies, a sense which in the past has been used to justify imperialism. Technologies are not just means to ends; they are symbols of our society’s positive self-image.

This changes perceptions. Because we think of new technologies as good things in their own right we do not apply sufficient care to how and when to use them. Too often there is a default assumption that if a technology is available it should be used. If it were not so, we should be debating not ‘assisted dying’ but ‘hindered dying’.

To illustrate the point, let us take a terminally ill man who is in pain and wants to die but the technology is available to postpone death. The relatives could discuss the situation with the doctor. However the wife gets so emotional at the thought of his death that she cannot take part. The daughter has for months been juggling a full-time job with regular visits and is utterly exhausted. The son is hoping to inherit money. A balanced, well-informed discussion of the patient’s best interests is impossible. For everybody involved it is extremely difficult to hold an informed and dispassionate discussion about the implications of the wife’s emotions and the daughter’s stress, especially in their presence. It is far easier to discuss the statistical probability of an operation’s success. As a result the temptation is to jump at the default position: the technology is there, so use it.

This is hardly satisfactory. If nothing else changes except that life-saving technology carries on improving, we shall sentence the dying to longer and longer periods of terminal pain. This suggests that our society lacks two things. One is an open, public discourse realistically assessing the proper limits of new technologies, including medical technologies. The other is a supportive wider community – some equivalent to a small rural village – which knows the family, empathises, and can share the burden of thinking through what to do without being so close to the dying person that emotions dominate.

Technology depends on science, and the cult of technology depends on the cult of ever-increasing knowledge. Until a century ago many physicists believed that one day they would have a complete account of the universe. Now it is clear that the universe is far too complex. There will always be processes we do not understand. The things we do not know will always exceed the things we do know. Our deepest, most significant decisions will always depend on unmeasured assessments of feelings. The cult of technology is reluctant to accept this and often gives undue weight to measurable scientific facts. By recognising that these facts are only a small part of reality, we can reaffirm that the big decisions of life and death need to be made not just by scientific data, but by love.

Posted in Ethics, Technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Assisted dying and the spookiness of death

This is the second of three posts on the struggle we have to know what to do about assisted dying. The first addressed the sanctity of life. This one is about death. The third will be on technology.

On the one hand more and more people are being artificially kept alive against their wishes. On the other, whoever is entrusted with the right to say it is time for someone to die, there is the danger of abuse.

When we face a dilemma like this it is worth taking a step back and asking whether we have a blind spot. The spookiness of death is, I believe, one of the blind spots.

Danse Macabre

Detail of a Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut, 1493

The Christian history of death

We struggle to explain what life is, but on the matter of death we prefer not to talk at all.

Philippe Ariès’ The Hour of Our Death (London: Allen Lane, 1981) explores this well. It describes in hair-raising detail the changing Christian attitudes to death until the 1970s when the book was written. Some examples will illustrate the point. The ancients were afraid of the dead and buried them out of the way, but the early medieval Christians, with their commitment to the resurrection of the body and the tombs of the martyrs, kept them close. From the fifth to the eighteenth centuries ‘the dead ceased to frighten the living, and the two groups coexisted in the same places and behind the same walls’. The effect was no more hygienic than one would expect: while in one part of a church a priest would be giving children a lesson in the Catechism, in another gravediggers would be digging up the floor to bury a body. The release of gases from previously buried bodies could cause illness and sometimes even death. Ariès gives examples from as late as the eighteenth century.

Before modern times death was seen as a time of transition. In the later Middle Ages, it was the stage for a supernatural struggle between the forces of good and evil for the dying person’s soul. As Savonarola put it,

Man, the devil plays chess with you, and he does his utmost to capture and checkmate you at this point. Hold yourself in readiness, therefore, and think well on this point, because if you win here, you will win all the rest, but if you lose, all that you have done before will be worthless.

There is a church in Naples where, in the seventeenth century, there began the custom in which

anyone can choose a skull at random in the charnel and take it into a crypt transformed into a mortuary chapel. One visits one’s skull periodically to keep the candles lit and recite prayers. One hopes that the unknown soul thus favored will be promptly delivered from purgatory. And he in turn, from his new celestial abode, may one day repay his benefactor in kind.

Thus Ariès introduces us to one practice after another which would be socially unacceptable to us. Death, and its implications, were acceptable topics of conversation. Together with the danses macabres and the transi (popular artistic representations of rotting corpses) one discovers a different attitude, where they laughed at death just as death laughed at them.

The modern medicalisation of death

Yet the greatest shock comes at the end, when he contrasts all this with the modern medicalisation and hospitalisation of death.

The dying man, who had already formed the habit of confiding to survivors wishes he no longer included in his will, abdicated gradually, abandoning to his family the control of the end of his life, and of his death. The family, in turn, passed this responsibiity on to the scientific miracle worker, who possessed the secrets of health and sickness and who knew better than anyone else what should be done.

This leads to a redefinition:

Death has ceased to be accepted as a natural, necessary phenomenon. Death is a failure, a “business lost”. This is the attitude of the doctor, who claims the control of death as his mission in life. But the doctor is merely a spokesman for society. When death arrives, it is regarded as an accident, a sign of helplessness or clumsiness that must be put out of mind. It must not interrupt the hospital routine, which is more delicate than that of any other professional milieu. It must therefore be discreet.

Medicalisation then redefines expectations. The ‘acceptable style of facing death’ is ‘the death of the man who pretends that he is not going to die’. The bad death

is always the death of a patient who knows. In some cases he is rebellious and aggressive; he screams. In other cases, which are no less feared by the medical team, he accepts his death, concentrates on it, and turns to the wall, loses interest in the world around him, cuts off communication with it. Doctors and nurses reject this rejection, which denies their existence and discourages their efforts. In it they recognize the hated image of death as a phenomenon of nature, whereas they had turned it into an accident of illness that must be brought under control.

To me this brings back memories. While Ariès was writing his book I was a nurse. Often enough the body language of helpless dying patients was clear enough: ‘Go away and leave me to die in peace’. No matter: my job was to take temperature, pulse and blood pressure, make the bed, whatever else. Decades later, when our dying family dog exhibited the same body language, the penny dropped.

Ariès’ judgement is severe. We have lost the codes we used to have for revealing unexpressed feelings – codes for courting, giving birth, dying and consoling the bereaved. Instead the feelings are suppressed: ‘It is quite evident that the suppression of mourning is not due to the frivolity of survivors but to a merciless coercion applied by society.’

Unmentionable death

My point is a limited one. One does not have to accept all Ariès’ strictures to recognise that modern society is far more squeamish about death than our predecessors were. This, I suggest, is one of the blind spots that hinders our current debate. In the past death could be seen as a time of transition. What was to happen next was variously described, but as long as it was a transition to something else, one could reflect on it. Today, for many, it is an absolute end. For the dying person there is no future at all, nothing to reflect on. The institutional ethos of hospitals presupposes this as the default position; doctors who believe in an afterlife should keep their views to themselves while on duty. In this situation it is inevitable that death becomes the great unmentionable. Just as 1930s Germans, aware that nasty things were going on in the gas chambers, knew it would be a faux pas to chat about them at dinner parties, so we today know not to talk about death.

One way to run away from it is to fantasise about postponing it as long as possible. Maybe medical technology will one day enable us to live to 150. When we are young the prospect can seem exciting; by the time we get to 90, the thought of another 60 years is the last thing we want. Because so much medical research is valuable for other reasons we are reluctant to criticise it, but theologians should not collude with those whose real agenda is to avoid facing up to death. Death happens. We need to rediscover how to talk about it realistically. If we did, perhaps we would become better able to help the terminally ill to die well.

Posted in Ethics, Technology | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Assisted dying and the sanctity of life

This is another attempt to address the issue of the sanctity of life in the context of proposed changes to the law on assisted dying. An earlier post is here.

The trouble with assisted dying is that the arguments on both sides are convincing. On the one hand more and more people are being artificially kept alive against their wishes, simply because the technology is available and nobody feels qualified to say it should not be used. Without the technology, nature would have been more merciful. On the other hand, who is to decide it is time for someone to die? The doctor? But is it purely a matter of medical expertise? Or the patient? He or she may have passed the stage of informed reflection, or at least maybe nobody is sure. Or the relatives? They may have vested interests. Whoever is entrusted with the right to say it is time for someone to die, danger lurks. We know we are crossing a significant boundary, entering creepy territory. It is as though every answer is a wrong answer.

syringeWhen we face a dilemma like this it is worth taking a step back and asking whether we have a blind spot. Are we all accepting presuppositions which need to be challenged? Is the dilemma a product of the way our society thinks? This is the first of three articles, each of which will address one blind spot. This one is on the sanctity of life. The others will be on the spookiness of death and the cult of technology.

Historians and theologians have often noted the early Christian Church’s role in promoting the sanctity of life. Normal attitudes in the Roman Empire would seem shocking today. Not just abortions but exposure of unwanted babies was very common. It was taken for granted that roadside beggars would starve to death. Watching gladiators fight each other to death was popular entertainment.

The theological background allowed it. The pagan gods represented different lifestyles and thus related to different people. Neither any one god nor the gods in concert were responsible for humanity as a whole or even Roman citizens as a whole. Christianity, universalising the god of Judaism, offered a deity who cares for each individual regardless of status or nationality.

The sanctity of life is now a central belief of most societies. Usually we are not sure what we mean by it. One thing we can say with confidence is that life is in a category of its own because it is the precondition of all our experiences. Beyond that, perhaps ‘the sanctity of life’ just means we are entering that murky territory where our understanding fails so we need to tread with care.

Our uncertainties leave wiggle room. In the 1980s I conducted a study of theologians’ arguments about the ethics of killing. Consistency lay in political affiliation rather than theological argument: theologians could adapt biblical texts, claims about the status of life, deontological principles and consequentialist assessments to reach the desired conclusions. Those most willing to kill in the cases of war and capital punishment characteristically had the strongest objections to abortion, suicide and euthanasia, and vice versa. To take a much analysed example, the official Roman Catholic position stated that it is always gravely sinful directly to kill an innocent person. This was interpreted in such a way that dropping a nuclear bomb could be morally permissible but euthanasia never was. None of this is surprising, but it warns us to check whether our beliefs about the sanctity of life are even consistent with each other.

Puzzles surround the beginning of life. Assuming we have no existence before conception or after death, if you had not been born you would have had no existence so nothing at all would have been sacred, or even meaningful, for you. You, like most people, are probably pleased that your parents did not have an abortion when you were being expected. Nevertheless your parents conceived you at a specific time on a specific day. If they had conceived five minutes earlier a different sperm cell would have reached the egg. You would never have been born. Somebody else might have been born instead. There was no obligation on your parents to conceive you rather than the other person. The planet is not big enough to bring to birth all the possible babies. Nature, which makes life with its sanctity possible, wastes most of it. If we waste a few more, the world’s population is still going up.

It is considerations like this that convince people that there must be more to life than a set of 7 billion individuals, arbitrarily selected out of an incomparably greater number of possible people, living 70 or 90 years and then being snuffed out for ever. Perhaps ‘we’ will have an afterlife in another realm, or we are souls inhabiting different bodies at different times, or we are part of each other in some way we cannot now see.

We are not given enough evidence. What we do know is the apparent contradiction: life is sacred, and most of it gets wasted. The sanctity of life baffles us. On other questions lack of understanding often drives us to intense research; in this case it frightens us off.

Usually our society is over-confident that our science enables us to know exactly what is happening. When we focus on individual life and death issues our confidence crumbles. The gut feeling that we are entering dangerous territory, a gut feeling which in pre-scientific societies would have kicked in far more often – to warn against eating pork, or growing food on holy land, or committing forbidden sex acts – still exists when facing the prospect of deciding to end a person’s life.

Posted in Ethics, Religion | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Wealth, generosity and the labourers in the vineyard

This post is based on Jesus’ parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), as I am preaching on it on Sunday. If you think it reads like a sermon, that’s because it is one. It draws on a number of New Testament scholars.

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.

VineyardJesus preached in Galilee, a place of rural villages. Previously most of the people had been peasant farmers, each family with its own plot of land. In Jesus’ day this was changing. It was part of the Roman empire and the Romans imposed heavy taxes. Every time a farmer could not pay the taxes he would have to sell his farm. Then he would become a day labourer. Day labourers would turn up at the market-place hoping to get work for the day. If they did not, they would have absolutely no money. There were no welfare benefits, nothing. In those days it was common for people to starve to death because they had no money to buy food.

In the parable the landowner goes to market to hire labourers for the day. He hires some, and agrees the usual daily wage. They start working. A few hours later he goes again and hires some more. He goes again at midday, then again in the middle of the afternoon, and again just an hour before sunset, and each time he hires a few more workers. Then at sunset the work finishes and they all queue up for their wages.

You would expect that the people who worked all day would get a full day’s wage and the people who only worked part of the day would get a proportion. Instead he pays them all a full day’s wage. They all get the same. The response is exactly what you would expect:

These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

The landowner replies

Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?… Or are you envious because I am generous?

The landowner is not acting as we would expect. This is not free market economics. The landowner is getting a full day’s work from some of them, but being extra generous to others. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like that. God is like that.

The envy in the parable, when the people who worked hard all day are angry that the others should be paid the same, is exactly what happens today. People say ‘I worked hard for my money; why should other people get away with not having to work?’

In order to survive we all need some of the world’s wealth. The wealth we depend on is not the money. Money is only a means of exchange. The wealth we depend on is the land, the earth, the things that grow in it, the sun and the rain. These are given by God. We did not earn them. They are gifts.

On top of that God lets us contribute to the wealth by caring for people who need help, or by creating things – building houses or making machines – but we can only do these things because we have brains and muscles, and these too are gifts from God.

This process of adding to the wealth is unequal. Just as, in the parable, some people worked hard all day for their wage while others only did an hour’s work, so also today, and in every society, some work harder than others. We all spend some of our lives not working at all; when we are little children, when we are too old, when we are ill, we depend on other people to do the work to look after us while we give nothing in return. Some people spend their whole lives needing to be looked after. In our modern industrial society there are also people who are able and willing to work but there are no jobs available.

Even when we are in the prime of life some people can work harder, or longer hours than others. We are not at all equal in our ability to work. We all need to receive, but some of us can do more of the giving than others. This is not a mistake in the way we are made. Although some people cannot work to help others, there are always enough people who can.

So just as the landowner gave everyone a day’s wage, even though some did more work than others, so also God provides us with a world full of good things, enough for everyone, even though some people can do more than others.

God gives us freedom. We can if we choose pay attention and notice how much we are given. We may then feel like saying ‘thank you’. So all over the world, in many different celebrations, like Harvest festivals, people come together to express their joy and thanks. The obvious way of showing our thanks is by sharing the things we have been given. Most of us can do at least something to help others in need.

However we are free not to. We can if we want live for ourselves, take what we want for ourselves, and ignore other people.

The adverts encourage this with all that nonsense about ‘you deserve it’. In reality none of us are owed anything. None of us deserved the right to live. None of us earned our first drink of our mother’s milk. It was a gift. If you have strong muscles, you did not earn them. If you have a clever brain, you did not earn it. It was given to you.

Another mistake is to imagine that wealth is money. This is a mistake governments make. They measure the economy by counting how much money we all spend and receive.

When we become self-centered, we become envious. We demand equality. Everything has to be counted. Then we become mean. We can see from what is happening in our own society that when everything gets counted, when everything has to be earned, some people end up with too much and others end up with not enough.

In real life, the exchange of money is only a small part of our wealth. If you think about what you do in your normal daily life you probably spend a lot of time doing things which do not involve spending or receiving any money at all. You probably do quite a lot of giving, whether to your pets, or your family, or your friends. And you probably receive things in return. Most of the wealth creation does not involve buying and selling. Nobody measures it, but it is an important part of all our lives. Giving and receiving.

God gives to us, and demands nothing in return. We too can give to each other, without counting the cost – as we normally do with our nearest and dearest.

When we recognise that what we have is gift, we naturally feel like celebrating it. It then becomes natural to express our thanks by sharing it with others. When we understand our true condition, it leads to celebration and generosity. It is a better way to live.

Posted in Bible, Economics, Ethics, God, Inequality, Jesus, Work | Tagged | 1 Comment

Old age: what next?

My wife Marguerite retired a few weeks ago. She was looking forward to it, but just as it happened we had a succession of funerals to attend. It was as though we were given a reminder: with retirement, death approaches.

RottenApple2My own retirement was some time ago, in 2002. I was younger, but in poor health. In my mind I was crossing things off the list of things I hoped to do in the future, since I would never be well enough.

How long should we live?

Looking forward to the day when medical technology enables us to live to 150 is a young person’s dream. As we get older the thought horrifies us. It is not just because our bodies become more infirm. This is certainly part of the picture: a 70-year-old, however fit and healthy, still cannot physically do all the things that could be taken for granted at 20.

However, even if medical technology could keep us for 100 years in the physical state we had at 20, our minds would be older. Our accumulated memories would still retain all that stuff from way back when. Those formative influences of our childhood would still be the influences of our childhood era.

What if we could do it again?

After I retired it took me years to make the mental adjustments to being a retired person. Gradually I became able to think of my time in paid employment as a past era, albeit the bulk of my life. Knowing what I know now, with the benefit of hindsight, if I could go back and do it all again, would I do it differently? Oh yes, certainly; but if I really was back in the early 1970s I would also be without that benefit of hindsight.

So I look back on some of the appalling mess-ups I made, and wish I could go back, find the people whose lives I spoiled, and apologise. I cannot. Similarly, I look back fondly at some of the good times, wish I could do them again, and then remind myself that even if I could, doing it a second time would not mean as much.

If they could make my body the body of a 20-year-old, it would not mean much unless they could also make my mind the mind of a 20-year-old. Of course I’d like to keep the useful knowledge and wisdom I have accumulated since then, but without the bad memories. Would that be possible? No: the bad memories are ingredients in the wisdom.

Life after death?

It isn’t possible, of course. The nearest possibility is reincarnation: we start again, not as 20-year-olds but as babies. To use a computer analogy, our minds would be rebooted without the bugs, but all the good software would need reinstalling.

As I crossed things off the list of things I hoped to do in the future, I was comforted by the thought that maybe our children would do them. If they wanted to. But then, what if they didn’t want to, and somebody else’s children did? Would that matter?

It seems that the issue at stake was my self-centredness. Why is it important that I should do these things, rather than somebody else? Why would I want a newborn baby to be a reincarnation of me rather than just being a new life?

Letting go of self-centredness

It is this self-centredness that elaborates theories of life after death. We don’t want to cease to exist. Yet death comes to us all, and the evidence of an afterlife is tenuous.

The overriding task, it seems, is to let go of our self-centredness. It is both spiritual and moral. As a moral task it impinges on all our other moral tasks: it is our self-centredness that stops us working for the common good.

Our society offers two ways to hang onto our self-centredness in the face of death. One is to commit ourselves to theories about life after death. Most of the theories come from the major faith traditions. The fact that they enable us to think of extending our self-centredness into eternity is part of the downside. Another is that they get turned into techniques of manipulation, urging people to join a particular tradition because of the afterlife benefits. By contrast the snippets of evidence for an afterlife, as for example researched by the Alister Hardy Society, are much healthier. They suggest that there is some kind of continuing life but do not favour one tradition over another.

The second way to reject the task is to drive death away. This is the characteristic approach of modern secular society. It knows, of course, that we shall all die, but it pushes this knowledge as far as it can into the background. Much medical research is devoted to postponing death as long as possible. Because so much research is valuable we are reluctant to criticise it; but one element is that the values of the young, who do not want to think realistically about death, get imposed on the old who are ready for it.


We need to adopt an attitude of trust. The discourses of modern science and technology can easily fool us into imagining that the scientific community understands how the universe works and how our bodies function. The reality is that although they are learning more and more, it is but a tiny part of the whole. The overwhelming majority of the forces and processes we need to survive are unknown to us. We have to trust them, and we all do. Including issues of death and the afterlife in this trust would be an obvious thing to do, if secularists had not imposed a taboo on everything they classify as ‘religion’.

So here, for you, is a picture of a rotten apple. Once it was ripe and edible. Eaten, it would have gone through someone’s digestive system and come out as manure. In its present state it is degenerating into manure anyway. In either case the manure will be nutritious food for new plants. The apple itself will have no say in how it gets used.

The same is true of our bodies. Whether we get buried or cremated we shall provide nutrients to other living beings. Which living beings, we cannot control or even foresee. I would like to think that our achievements and ideas will do the same.

At the approach of death, we have to let go. The pleasures and excitements of life can be just as well experienced by someone else. For me, retirement drew attention to this need, and the deaths of good friends are a reminder. Letting go of our self-centredness is not easy, but it has to be done.

If it were not for the exaggerated claims for scientific knowledge and control that are so common these days I think this would be more obvious. Eventually we have to accept our fragility and our ignorance, and put our trust in the forces that make life possible. By the end of life we may have learned that they are indeed to be trusted.

Posted in Ethics, Religion | Tagged | 4 Comments

Downs syndrome abortion

Richard Dawkins has achieved another piece of self-publicity. A woman said she would face a real ethical dilemma if she became pregnant with a baby with Down’s syndrome. He replied ‘Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice’.

Downs syndrome babyNaturally there was an outcry, and Dawkins published one of those non-apologies that we often get from public figures these days.

Here is my attempt to clarify the main issues.

The ethics of abortion

Some people are against abortion in any circumstances, or with very few exceptions. In this instance the assumption is that abortion is sometimes morally acceptable, and the question is whether Downs syndrome is sufficient reason. It is a legitimate question.

The sanctity of life

That life is sacred is a central belief of most societies. If you hadn’t been born you would have had no experiences at all, so you are pleased that your parents did not have an abortion when you were on the way. You recognise that the same applies to everyone else.

Nevertheless in another sense it is all relative. Your parents conceived you at a specific time on a specific day. If they had conceived five minutes earlier, a different sperm cell would have reached the egg. You would never have been born. Somebody else might have been born instead. There was no obligation on your parents to conceive you rather than the other person. The planet is not big enough to bring to birth all the possible babies. Nature, which makes sacred life possible, wastes most of it. If we waste a few more, the world’s population is still going up. Although it conflicts with our sense of the sanctity of life, in practice individuals and couples do select some possible babies for life and others for non-life. Of course we select blindly, not knowing what the potential babies will be like, but we do select, if only by deciding when and how often to allow conception.

This may leave us feeling that we cannot possibly do the right thing. It is considerations like this that convince people that there is more to life than an arbitrarily selected set of individuals living 70 or 80 years and then being snuffed out for ever. Perhaps ‘we’ are souls inhabiting different bodies at different times, or we are all part of each other in some way we cannot now see. We do not know. What we do know is the apparent contradiction: nature gives us life which is absolutely sacred, and wastes most of it.


To the logical awareness of the sanctity of life is added the emotional tie of love. Characteristically parents love their babies even before they are born. After birth the bonds get stronger. These bonds are essential for the child’s development, and the parents’ feelings are of course a central part of any decision-making. This is why it is so much easier for a public commentator to advise abortion than for parents to accept the advice.


Dawkins stands in that long tradition of social engineering which believes the educated elite can make us happier by improving the condition of human society, for example by eugenics. Dawkins is quite open in his support for eugenics. Defending his position he argues:

If your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down’s baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.

Within Dawkins’ materialist philosophy this does not make sense. How could the welfare of a Downs syndrome baby be improved by abortion, unless the soul is to be reincarnated in a different baby? Dawkins may have in mind that the parents could then try for another baby, but on his theory it would be a different person: the first would be replaced by the second. Giles Fraser rightly argues that

too many humanists… place the category “human” quite a long way down their order of importance, with things such as rationality or choice or the avoidance of pain being deemed of greater significance. Human life can thus be easily traded away in some utilitarian calculation.

Emotion and logic

In an additional piece of self-defence Dawkins adds:

Those who took offence because they know and love a person with Down’s syndrome, and who thought I was saying that their loved one had no right to exist, I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one. It is one of a common family of errors, one that frequently arises in the abortion debate.

This explains a lot. His moral judgements are based on a logic from which emotion has been excised.

On the face of it this is entirely fitting for a social engineer who thinks science and technology are going to make us happier by techniques like eugenics.

However, without emotions there cannot be any morality, because nothing would ever matter. Without emotions the project of making us happier would be impossible. If there was no emotion hidden away in Dawkins’ interior, camouflaged by his technocratic façade, he would not want to improve the lot of humanity. All our agendas need emotion as well as logic.


I disagree with Dawkins for two main reasons.

We cannot have an emotion-free morality. Dawkins, as a moral guide, does no better than the traditional Roman Catholic magisterium when it tried to pronounce on every moral issue by analysing its logic. If abortion is to be considered, the views of the parents should be central. Their feelings matter.

Eugenics misses the moral point. It is not just Hitler who should warn us against thinking we can improve the lot of humanity by getting rid of certain classes of people. As an atheist it is natural for Dawkins to imagine that intelligent scientists like himself can improve on nature, since nature produced us unintentionally. I believe the natural order was produced by a mind far greater than his.

So far, scientific research supports my case rather than his. As science progresses it is not getting closer to an understanding of how everything works so that we can control it. On the contrary, every major discovery reveals that the universe is even more complex than we previously thought.

I agree with Dawkins in his desire to improve the happiness of humanity. He thinks it can be done by techniques, as science and technology find ways to exclude people with Downs syndrome and other limitations. I think it is to be done by a more immediate morality, by accepting whoever we are given and caring for them for their own sakes.

Posted in Ethics, Science, Technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Humanity and nature: who is in control?

In a recent post I mentioned the fact that the study of anthropology began with nineteenth century atheists who struggled to understand why our hunter-gatherer ancestors all over the world made the same crazy mistake of imagining the existence of gods, for whom – according to those anthropologists – there was no evidence.


Some of the literature of that period was very patronising, with views that today would be considered racist. Few were as extreme as De Brosses, who in 1760 wrote that ‘savages’ are like children, living in an uninterrupted state of childhood and never passing the level of the four-year-old; but even Carl Jung in the twentieth century thought ‘primitives’ are in a lower phase of evolution with less developed consciousness. Evans-Pritchard later suggested that such claims gave their writings ‘a flavour of smugness which one may find either irritating or risible’.

Of course atheist anthropologists still take the view that believing in gods was a big mistake, and therefore still puzzle over the apparent fact that the same mistake has been made all over the world; but today they do so more sympathetically, in cooperation with believing colleagues.

The puzzlement comes from presumptions which are deeply embedded in modern western culture but would have been unknown to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. To understand how early faith worked we need to set them aside. One is the assumption that we can, or ought to be able to, control the forces of nature. Floods, droughts and typhoons should remind us that we cannot; but the agenda of establishing control informs some of the dominant attitudes of modern society.

For our hunter-gatherer ancestors it was a different matter.

1. They knew they were surrounded by natural forces.

Those of us who live in big cities can easily forget. Even the countryside is often so controlled by modern farming methods that it is easy to imagine that humans are in control. They could not forget.

2. They knew they were dependent on these natural forces.

Today our lifestyles depend heavily on the work of other people. Many of us now live in places which are too hot or cold, too wet or dry, or too high up or low down, to be habitable without constant human intervention. For them, human dependence on nature was an unforgettable everyday fact.

3. They knew the forces were beyond their control

We have inherited a tradition of assuming that modern science and technology can, or should be able to, control the forces of nature. This modern tradition treats humanity like a little boy in a playpen, free to do whatever he likes with his toys. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew the forces of nature were beyond their control.

4. They perceived the forces as the product of thought.

From their point of view it would have been absurd to think of the whole world system as the product of chance or unthinking processes. It was too complex, too productive. Sometimes they thought of a supreme mind behind the whole system, sometimes they thought of different minds behind the different forces of nature.

5. They perceived the forces as value-laden.

These forces made life possible, but sometimes they took it away. They made good health possible, but sometimes they gave illness. They provided sunshine and rain to make the crops grow, but sometimes they provided too much or not enough. They provided babies, but sometimes dead ones. In other words the forces of nature were mainly good but sometimes hostile. To be thanked, but feared.

They would therefore have related to the forces of nature as from an inferior position, not as we do today. To take an analogy, it is a bit like being under occupation in a time of war. The victorious invaders face the task of finding out how things work in the land they now occupy, in order to control it. The agenda is one of control. They are in charge and need to find out how to run things most effectively. The losers on the other hand face a different task. As they lose their freedom they need to work out how to cope. Learning to cope with powerlessness is more a matter of how to evaluate, how to feel about the different aspects of the situation, what kinds of relationships to establish with the invaders. In the same way we today expect to relate to the forces of nature as its masters. We expect to control it. We do not ask whether those forces have an agenda of their own; the agenda will be set by us. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, on the other hand, knew they had no control. In their powerlessness they had to work out how to cope. From their point of view the last thing they wanted to believe was that those forces were just impersonal, unintending accidents. Hope lay in the prospect of relating to them, thanking them and pleading with them as appropriate on each occasion.

How it worked out in practice naturally varied from one society to another. What they had in common was that they were not like us. They knew they were dependent on natural forces beyond their control. They saw these forces as meaningful and purposeful. Rather than trying to control them, they tried to work out how to live within their limits, and relate to them.

At the present time, as modern society continues to fantasise about solving our national problems by producing more and consuming more, while the world heats up, how sure are we that their approach was less enlightened than ours?

Posted in Environment, God, Religion | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment