Power and Influence: you either got it or you ain’t

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We the common people, you and I, don’t have the prime minister’s or the president’s ear. We lack power and influence: we’re not the CEO of large companies, obscenely wealthy or part of any religious lobby. Those in power can rely on the fact that next year we’ll have some other cause to send us out on the streets and on to social media. It will not trouble them.

Real change takes decades to achieve. It took over a century for gay people to have the rights they have today. Stonewall was not the beginning, but a milestone on a much longer journey. Protests over the summer don’t have this effect. The Civil Rights campaigns of the ’60s were only partially successful; we wouldn’t now have the Black Lives Matter movement if they had been wholly effective. Likewise women’s rights. Even the previous president of the US, who was inclined to do so, was unable to introduce greater gun control laws; the current incumbent has no interest in doing so and is, in any case, controlled himself by the gun lobby.

The place of the common people is to be controlled, regulated and herded. We’ve seen this in sharp focus during the Covid crisis. Granted safety measures have been for our own good, even if some have taken it upon themselves to defy them. Nonetheless, the advice and regulation during the pandemic has taken on the semblance of law when much of it isn’t at all, with police making criminals of individuals who have failed to comply.

Unless, of course, they were politicians, unelected advisers to the prime minister or members of the royal family. Their flouting of restrictions have been understandable and acceptable; the exception can be made for them. That’s power and influence for you.

If you or I were friends with Jeffrey Epstein and arranged through him to pay underage girls for sex, we might expect, once the law caught up with us, to serve a prison sentence. Not so Prince Andrew. He’s a royal and so exempt: power and influence.

If you or I killed a motorcyclist while driving on the wrong side of the road in another country and then flee the country claiming diplomatic immunity, we should expect to be extradited to face justice. Not so Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat in the UK. She does not herself have diplomatic immunity, not that that should matter. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has refused to return her to UK. Power and influence.

If you or I failed to pay our tax in full, you could be sure the Revenue service would be down on us like the proverbial ton of bricks (I know this from experience when they miscalculated my tax a couple of years back.) Yet for many years Amazon, Netflix and Starbucks have either paid nothing or a tiny fraction of tax due in the countries where they make their money. Why should they? They are giants in their fields and above such petty concerns as paying full taxes – that’s for the little people, like you and me. It pays to have power and influence.

You and I probably receive, or received, a modest salary for the work we do/did. Not so investment bankers who award themselves thousands in bonuses – and occasionally millions – on top of extravagant salaries and the interest they make from hedge funds and off-shore investments. Successive UK governments in the UK, from both the left and right, have been promising for as long as I can remember to take down these ‘fat cats’ and restore some equity to remuneration. Despite the bank collapses a dozen years ago they still haven’t. Why? Because bankers have too much power and influence. One thing we’ve learnt during the covid-19 pandemic is that they are far from being essential workers. Yet they continue to receive exorbitant rewards for what they do, while genuine key workers receive far less for their crucial service.

If you or I had lost a loved one in the 417 mass shootings in the US last year we would expect and implore the government to act. But it’s the NRA that has the ear of the president so gun laws remain unchanged. Power and influence.

The Catholic church has claimed at least $1.4 billion dollars from Covid-19 relief funds: not to feed the hungry but to line their own coffers. Who, ultimately, will pay for this handout and similar ones to equally wealthy organisations? That’s right – you and I will, through increased taxes, even though the money doled out was from our taxes to start with.

You and I aren’t able to influence the government with our personal beliefs and philosophies. Religious lobbies can. In the States, a number of prominent right-wing Christians serve as Trump advisers. The president is more than willing to aid them in scaling back the human rights of LGBT people and restricting women’s freedom of choice. In the UK, Church of England bishops have an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords where they can amend and veto the decisons of democratically elected MPs.

You and I don’t have power or influence. We are powerless. We are intentionally distracted, kept occupied by the modern equivalent of bread and circuses: television, sport, shopping, alcohol, social media.

Still, next time we’re faced with an injustice, we can always take to Twitter – or to the streets – for all the good it will do us.

Another name for confirmation bias

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Most Christians admit to a belief in the Holy Spirit. The majority also subscribe to the notion that this manifestation of God (or Jesus?) guides them in their spiritual journey, supernaturally from within. The Holy Spirit, the Bible says, lives inside believers (1 Corinthians 3.16); an aspect of God designed to fit the human body.

You’d think then, that with part God embedded in their psyche or wherever it (or ‘he’, according to most believers) has taken up residence, that all Christians would think alike; would have the same priorities; would subscribe to the same doctrines; moreso when that other embodiment of God, Jesus himself, supposedly prayed for such a unity (John 17. 20-23).

Evidently they don’t achieve any of this. There are, depending on which authority you consult, in the region of 34,000 Christian denominations, sects and groups, all of which see themselves as possessors of God’s sacred truths. Most regard that it is they alone who possess this truth in its purest form. There wouldn’t be separate denominations otherwise.

And from where do they derive their own peculiar revelation of the Truth? Ultimately, most would say, from the Holy Spirit. It is he who guides them in all truth, as John’s Jesus promised (John 16.13), showing them how to read the bible and interpret it aright (1 Corinthians 2.6-16) and allowing them to discern truth (1 John 4) in what they hear from God’s chosen instruments on earth: pastors, ministers, prophets, evangelists, popes.

And the Truth they arrive at is different from the Truth arrived at by that other sect or wayward denomination elsewhere.Quote4

The Holy Spirit leads different Christians to contradictory doctrines on the essentials of the faith: about how an individual is ‘saved’ for example; whether it’s legitimate to talk of being ‘saved’ at all; predestination; free will; the place of baptism in salvation (essential or not?); Heaven and Hell; the nature of faith itself; the role of ‘works’; God’s plan for individual lives; evangelism; the ‘infallibility’ of the bible; how best to worship God; the nature of God; the existence of other supernatural beings; the role of women in the church. If they can’t agree on these – and they don’t – then what the f**k is the Holy Spirit playing at?

Then there are the issues they claim are of concQuotes2ern to God, though of course they don’t all agree on what these might be: social justice, morality, sex, same-sex relationships, equality, feminism, science, evolution, Hollywood, making America great again, guns, Trump, right-wing politics, liberalism, Covid-19 (many of which, we might note in passing, the bible has absolutely no interest in.) And what do we find?Quote5Quotes1First, the Holy Spirit provides diametrically opposed ‘truths’ to individual Christians, as the quotations within this post illustrate. Second, that same Spirit affirms the views, prejudices and biases of each Christian he speaks to. God’s thoughts are, miraculously, the same as those seeking them out. 

Of course, there is no Holy Spirit. There’s no Holy Spirit because there’s no God. What those who speak for him are doing is voicing the frequently ill-informed and evidence-free suppositions of their particular branch of the cult. Claiming these are endorsed by God is at best a delusion, at worst, sheer deceit.

The Holy Spirit, then: just another name for confirmation bias.

 

Coronavirus defeated

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Thank God the Coronavirus pandemic is over. It was scary there for a minute or two. Over 3,000 people died from it. Fortunately, they were mainly Chinese and South Koreans. Vice-president Mike Pence and other anti-abortionists Christian leaders have now taken care of it. On Friday they prayed that it would go away and God has done as they asked. The picture above, courtesy of The Friendly Atheist, shows them doing it. Here’s some other nitwits righteous ones doing the same thing and here an article about the prophet whom God chose to announce to the world that the threat was over. You have to wonder, though, why he made the virus in the first place and why he allowed it to spread so indiscriminately. I mean, even Christians were infected.

Truly, the way to resolve a world wide health crisis is to enlist the help of an imaginary sky fairy who, as usual, does f**k all to help.

Next week: the coronavirus continues to spread. These same men of God then realise that the virus is actually God’s punishment for abortion… er, homosexuality… um, opposition to Trump… er, people shaking their fists in his face (he really doesn’t like that.) Then it all becomes clear why God made the virus in the first place. Difficult to explain why he started it off in China though, but the Lord will surely let his prophets know that too (I mean, those Chinese are commies.)

Life must be easy when all you have to do is make stuff up. It’s more than a little bit worrying that those who do it are listened to by multitudes who’ve switched off their critical faculties. More worrying still when some of these fantasists are in charge of entire countries. The only way coronavirus will be defeated is through science; the development of a vaccine, which is still many months away. Imaginary deities – and they’re all imaginary – prayers, pleading and blaming are all worse than useless.

Thou shalt worship False Idols

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Franklin Graham was in England over the weekend, to preach at Blackpool’s presumptuous ‘Festival of Hope’. There was considerable opposition to his presence from, amongst others, the town council and local churches. One objection in particular stood out: Nina Parker, a minister at Blackpool’s Liberty church said –

(Graham) seems committed to condemnation, discrimination, walls and prejudice in a way that Jesus never was.

‘In a way that Jesus never was?’ Has Nina read the gospels? I feel sure she must have done – and yet, she, along with many others, still sees a Jesus as a beautiful soul, full of love, kindness and forgiveness. Many Christians, like Nina, don’t let the evidence (such as it is) interfere with their own inaccurate construct(s) of him. Their reading is coloured by their preconceptions to such an extent they can’t see that, while he may occasionally pay lip-service to being nice, Jesus is, as we saw last time, actually a bit of a shit.

Should you doubt it, there’s his

advocacy of cruelty and self-harm –

If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Mattthew 18.6)

enthusiasm for destruction –

I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12.49)

disrespect for life and propensity for violence –

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. (John 15.6)

disdain for non-Jews –

(Jesus said) “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matt 15.24-26)

exclusion of those who would follow him –

And He told them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'” (Mark 4.11-12)

contempt for those who don’t subscribe to his ‘good news’ –

it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town (that isn’t interested in his message.) (Matthew 10.15)

contempt for those who do –

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants (slaves); we have only done our duty.'” (Luke 17.10)

delusions of grandeur –

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19.28)

Is this the Jesus Nina Parker speaks of, the one with no time for ‘condemnation, discrimination, walls and prejudice’?

Hardly.

Nor do Christians reserve such cherry-picking for their saviour. Many of them make the same allowances for Donald Trump, proclaiming him to be God’s choice for president because he’s anti-abortion, anti-LGBT and makes the right noises about Christians’ religious liberty (and no-one else’s). Trump’s corruption, dishonesty, pettiness, serial adulteries, misogyny and self-obsession, together with the absence of any behaviour that might reasonably be considered ‘Christian’, are ignored, excused and dismissed; he couldn’t be a Man of God with characteristics like these – and a Man of God of God he most definitely is: Franklin Graham says so.

Turning a blind eye to the many obvious faults of their heroes is something Christians have always been good at, making false idols of Trump and Jesus alike.

Jesus just isn’t up to it

A brief diversion from considering why God couldn’t possibly have created the universe…

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Billy Graham’s grandson, Boz Tchividjian, has been addressing the issue of child abuse in the protestant church. He concludes his considered comments with the claim that,“there was no greater defender of children than Jesus.” Presumably he bases this on the few things Jesus is made to say about children in the gospels – all two of them: ‘suffer the little children’ (Luke 18.15-17) and that stuff about ‘whoever leads a little one astray’ (Mark 9.42), which is really more about the precariousness of faith than children. And, according to Boz, this qualifies Jesus as the greatest defender of children ever. No-one has ever done anything ‘greater’ for them. Not Dr Barnardo, not Save the Children, not the NSPCC, not foster carers or ordinary mothers and fathers. Nope, Jesus is the best ever child protector. The same Jesus in whose name both Catholic and Protestant churches have systematically abused young people down the years.

I never cease to be amazed at the willingness of Christians to superimpose every conceivable virtue, and quite a few prejudices, on a long dead itinerant preacher. But this is no modern phenomenon. It began within a few years of Jesus’ death, when religious zealot Saul decided that a peculiar turn he’d had was really Jesus returned from the dead. On the back of this, Saul – newly rebranded as ‘Paul’ – invented all manner of nonsense about a man he’d never met, his entire, tortured theology bearing little relation to any individual who had ever actually lived. We know this is what happened because of the disciples’ objections to Paul’s ideas and the very different ways in which Jesus was later to be portrayed in the synoptic gospels.

Then the crank who wrote Revelation added even more to the Jesus legend; he was now an avenging warrior-king, ready to fight dragons and smite his enemies right, left and centre.

And still it goes on: Christians insist Jesus was perfect, that he did not ‘sin’ or do anything immoral, when the figure in the synoptic gospels is alternately misogynistic, xenophobic, insulting, prone to anger, supportive of slavery and megalomaniacal. Far from perfect, in fact.

Not so, say other Christians who make it up as they go along; Jesus is a great protector and defender, looking after his flock from Heaven. But in reality, his protection is non-existent, as those who implored him to divert hurricane Harvey recently discovered. (We can be sure his uselessness as an insurance policy won’t change the way any of them regard him.)

Even if Jesus isn’t perfect or a great defender, he is, according to extremist nincompoop, Kevin Swanson, a divine punisher, inflicting natural disasters as a result of people’s ’embrace of sexual perversion’. Yet at the same time, he has a special affection for the good ol’ US of A, steering Donald Trump into the presidency and pulling his strings to Make America Great Again.

Or maybe Jesus is really a financial wizard; proponents of the ‘prosperity gospel’ say so, despite Jesus’ repeated repudiation of wealth in the gospels. On the other hand, he’s a sensitive little snowflake, easily offended by anything and everything we do down here on Earth, to the extent he gets upset by what’s on the TV.

Jesus can barely bear the weight of the incredible claims made for him in the gospels (miracle worker, prophet, healer), even though this is a great deal less than the characteristics he’s had projected on him since. Jesus was not eternal, nor the ultimate sacrifice as Paul claimed; he was not God himself as later Christians determined; he was not perfect, nor the greatest defender of children ever; he was not a super-hero warrior-king, nor was he patient, meek or mild. He did not have a preference for a nation that did not exist in his time nor was he explicitly anti-gay. Despite how he’s invariably shown in devotional material produced by western Christians, he certainly wasn’t white. He wasn’t even a Christian.

All of these attributes have been added to him, long after his death, by those who need and want him to be these very things, who need a saviour in their own image. The many Christs that exist, from those invented in the first century to those worshipped today, are, every one, figments of the human imagination.

 

 

 

Trust the Experts

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Following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, a meme has surfaced suggesting that ordinary people have taken to rejecting and ignoring experts; that we no longer trust or respect them and have taken decisions, which in the past they would have made for us, into our own hands (with, the implication is, disastrous results).

If only our experts were experts in the field they profess to be experts in. The views and advice we reject are very often not those of the knowledgeable at all, but merely of those who claim to be experts.

In democracies, ministers and government administrators are, to give them the benefit of the doubt, experts in a given area – frequently in UK government in economics and politics itself – but are, on election, often appointed to a position outside this area of expertise. The current Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, for example, has no health related qualifications; his degree is in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Being generous, we might say that he is an expert in these areas, but, he has no expertise whatsoever in the field of health, healthcare, the management of hospitals nor even the management of people. There are those who rightly point out that in these areas, he really hasn’t much of a clue. Yet, as Secretary of State for Health, he manages the entire NHS in England and Wales. Was there really no-one who could make a better job of it than Mr Hunt – an expert, say? Was Hunt any more of an expert in Culture, the post he held before being shunted into Health by David Cameron (another ‘expert’ – in Media Communications – who had no experience, let alone expertise, of managing the Health service)?

Similarly, Justine Greening, the current Education secretary – who has previously been Economic secretary, Transport secretary and secretary for International Development – is an economist and accountant. She is not an expert in Education, nor was she for all of her previous responsibilities. Then there’s Lynn Truss, Secretary of State for Justice (an economist), Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport (historian), Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (degree in maths), Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary (classics), Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (political science), Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence (classics & ancient history) and Theresa May (geography).

And it isn’t just in the UK; the appointment of similarly non-expert experts is taking place right now under Donald Trump – himself an expert in what? – in the USA. Granted that in the UK government, there are some ministers whose qualifications bear some resemblance to the posts they hold (Philip Hammond, Sajid David) but why do we, the electorate, tolerate the deplorable mismatch of others? Ministers do, of course, have civil servants to advise them on their roles, but these are unelected, unknown bureaucrats and who is to say whether their expertise lies within the fields on which they’re advising?

It is no wonder the populace seems to have lost faith in experts. It is because too many of them are not. When I’m ill, I call the doctor not an accountant. When I’m concerned about the environment, I listen to a climate change expert not a political scientist. If I’m seeking justice, I appeal to the courts system, not the banking sector. Why don’t government appointments work like this? Why are we managed by people who have no expertise and, in many cases, no experience in the field in which they present themselves as the ultimate expert? And why are we expected to trust them, to follow their advice and believe in their promises and plans? Most of the time they don’t, quite literally, have much idea of what they’re taking about, and when they’ve got themselves and the service they’re supposedly overseeing into a mess, they’re moved on in a cabinet reshuffle, to another post they don’t know very much about.

It’s difficult to see how things could be any different with the system the way it is, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. If it’s the system that needs to change, then it should. It isn’t too much to ask of those who govern us that they have some expertise in the areas for which they accept responsibility.

And what has this to do with religion, you may ask? Be assured it has. Next time.