Thursday, March 12, 2015

Islamic State makes me think of Bamiyan again

Hatra, a fortified city that withstood attack by the Romans
Today two linked stories in the media. The Guardian reports Iraq’s director of antiquities confirming that Islamic State militants (don't like the word but more of that another day) have ransacked the ancient city of Dur-Sharrukin near Mosul. This is the group’s latest assault on the country’s 3,000 year heritage, the report following hard on the heels of news of destroyed ruins at the ancient city of Hatra.  (I'm not clear if the destruction includes the city walls in the image above.  The story was on the BBC website a few days ago.)

Bamiyan Buddhas. Left, after 1,500 years. Right, after 1,500 years and 25 days
The other linked story I came across today is also from the BBC who have interviewed an Afghani bicycle repair mechanic in Bamiyan, one Mirza Hussain. In March 2001 as a prisoner of the Taliban he was forced to carry explosives to blow the Bamiyan Buddhas up.  "I regretted it at that time, I regret it now and I will always regret it," he says. "But I could not resist, I didn't have a choice because they would have killed me."  He recalls two to three explosions every day to destroy the Buddha, and drilling holes into the statue to plant the dynamite without proper tools.  He remembers the whole process took 25 days, and that the Taliban brought nine cows to slaughter as a sacrifice.

I've blogged about the Bamiyan Buddhas before, in 2011. At that time I was exercised by the debate whether they should be left as rubble; a debate that so far as I know continues.  But now the Buddha destruction has a more urgent relevance.  The annihilation of these ancient sandstone carvings, once the world's tallest Buddhas, in an act of destruction that shocked the world, doubtless inspired the recent vandalism of Iraqi heritage sites by Islamic State fighters.   And it's set me thinking about iconoclasm generally. 
Islamic State, which controls large areas of Iraq and Syria, says shrines and statues are "false idols" that have to be smashed.  Carved to the glory of God, and in an act of performance art, smashed to the glory of God.  It could be argued, though not by me, that one act is as valid as the other.   More about this when my thoughts are in order.   

Mirza Hussain today, from the BBC website
As a postscript we should note that according to Newsweek, when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, residents hiding in the mountains at the time, heard explosions for three or four days.  Fifty cows were sacrificed at the site for Taliban dignitaries flown in by helicopter for the celebration. Mirza Hussain says 25 days and mentions only 9 cows. The sort of conflict of evidence that journalists and historians have to grapple with daily.  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Stephen Fry’s gauntlet: the Problem of Evil

I seek expert opinion on God
From time to time I struggle with composing my atheist manifesto. But maybe I'm making too much of a meal of it, as it can actually be expressed quite simply.  I find no use for the concept of God. But nor do I believe in campaigning for atheism or mocking those who find solace in religion, and I've never felt the need to try to convert anyone away from a religious belief. (This is because I've led a sheltered life. Some religious beliefs are downright evil, and those holding them most certainly need converting.)

On an Irish television programme ten days ago Stephen Fry was asked what he thought about God and religion, and he gave an answer very much in line with the foregoing. The programme was an episode in RTÉ’s series The Meaning of Life. To conclude the 30-minute interview, veteran Irish journalist Gay Byrne asked Stephen Fry to suppose that it's judgment day, and that contrary to Fry’s expectation, God really exists. What would he say to God in these circumstances?

Here's his answer.  It's the programme's trailer, whose audience passed the five million mark several days ago, it seems, dwarfing the audience for the actual broadcast.

Fry begins by using a long word. Theodicy.  On looking it up I found this is the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil. 

Fry then launches into the speech he would make to God at the gates of heaven.  In a nutshell it's this:-

Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you?  Yes the world is very splendid. But it has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind.  Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.

He thinks the moment you banish God, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living.

I have a transcript if you want it. But Stephen Fry’s words aren’t what I want to concentrate on.  It's the gauntlet he's thrown down to debate the Problem of Evil that interests me; and the rest of what I have to say is about how Christian apologists picked that gauntlet up.

The Irish Catholic tried to reassure its readers with the headline “Stephen Fry was wrong about God, claims expert”.  When you examine what the expert has to say, it's pretty woeful, even though he's a professor of philosophy. All we get is that human beings cause the world’s injustice not God.  It's a result of us having free will.  So there is no Problem of Evil.  Move along please, nothing to see here.

Bad move. Everyone, believer or not, knows Christianity (for non-Christian religions see appendix) has a Problem of Evil, and it's simple to express: God can't be at the same time all-powerful,  good, and just.  I don't know much about Stephen Fry’s eye-eating worm; but it's a fair bet that if I gave all I could spare to assist in cleaning up the water supply this would kill a lot of worms and save a lot of children. Yet I don't give all I can spare … why … because of my human frailty.  Were there a just God, it would be my eye that was eaten. But it's not mine. It's a child’s in far away village.  Why is that allowed?

Giles Fraser: chutzpah.   Rowan Williams: lame
But good eggs
For those who would convince us there's a God, this is a conundrum. To which they propose four possible solutions. None is popular, and it takes courage to stand in the public square and declare any of them. Here they are:-

1.    It's not God’s fault it's ours. God gave us free will and we’ve misused it.

2.    God isn't all-powerful: we’ve read the Bible all wrong.

3.    Amends will be made in the afterlife: the downtrodden will go to heaven, and an eternity of bliss will make this world’s sufferings pale into insignificance.

4.    Our understanding is weak: if we saw the whole picture like God does, we would see it's all OK.

Option 1 (championed in the Irish Catholic) is so hopelessly off-target it's not even worth running to pick up the ball. 

Giles Fraser, The Guardian’s Loose Canon, goes for option no 2.   Hats off, he has chutzpah to claim that God is powerless and we must forget all the stuff in the Bible about creating the world and being almighty, apparently it's all metaphorical.  Giles Fraser by the way is a good egg, and if you'll forgive a digression, just read what he had to say about the burning by ISIS of the Jordanian pilot, and how he felt about watching the video of it on the internet.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams goes for option 3.   Hats off once more.  You can't help admiring someone who can stand up for a position so utterly lame.  Rowan Williams is another good egg. I mean no harm to either of them.

Blogging on the Catholic Herald website, a priest, one Ed Tomlinson, espouses option 4.  His blog is worth reading because Fr Ed admits that natural evil is a tricky issue for believers, and there’s no glib or easy answer to the question of why God, if he exists, allows suffering.  But then he subtly changes the subject - and he's not the only one I've detected in this sleight of hand. He says “removing God from the equation does nothing whatsoever to eradicate the problem of suffering in this world”. 

In other words, never mind how I deal with the Problem of Evil, how do you atheists deal with the Problem of Evil? A fair question (and actually a far more interesting question, the answer to which is another day’s work) but hey, if you change the subject, you lose the argument! 

Two appendices

An appendix regarding other religions. So far as I know the Problem of Evil exists in exactly the same form in both Judaism and Islam though I'm no expert and am open to contradiction. In Hinduism karma appears to be a complicating factor.  Suffering in this world of the seemingly innocent can be explained as the outworking of karma from previous lives.  A very handy get-out clause, you have to admit ... but don't place any reliance on my words, as they are gleaned from Wikipedia.  More research needed.

Another appendix. For a semi official one-page summary of the position of the Catholic Church, approved by the Archbishop of Perth, I can direct you The Problem of Evil has been solved on the Why Not Catholicism website. In summary: Evil is the result of the abuse of free-will. Since evil now exists, God will use it to bring about a greater good. What about the agonising death of a child? Since God is Love, we can reasonably hope that His infinite justice and mercy will somehow compensate for the apparent harshness of the child's horrendous death. A Catholic sees not the problem of suffering but the meaning of it. When Jesus comes in glory the forces of evil will be definitively overcome. Follow the link for yourself if you don't want to take my word for it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Greece: let's prove the Cassandras wrong ... oops

Tsipras: The Cassandras will be proved wrong
I wish Alexis Tsipras well and foresee that soon socialists across Europe will be called upon to demonstrate in support of Greece’s new anti-austerity government. Already two days after being elected it is set on collision course with Brussels, as corporate-friendly politicians and central bankers try to beat the Greek people back into submission.

Cassandra: gift of prophesy
Nonetheless, the Classical Association of Ireland has drawn a faux pas to my attention and I feel duty bound to draw it to yours.  Before an audience of thousands of supporters, Tsipras announced: “Friends, the new Greek government will prove all the Cassandras of the world wrong. [There will be] no mutually destructive clash … We have a great opportunity for a new beginning.”

As the Guardian put it: Cue gasps of horror from Hellenists around the world.

We know of course what Tsipras intended.  By employing the Cassandra trope, he was making a reference to all the aforementioned politicians and central bankers who have variously predicted the end of Greece / the Euro / world economic policy / life as we know it, should his party Syriza get elected.  Cassandra’s prophesies of doom were all wrong, and all today’s prophets of doom will be proved wrong too.

The trouble is that when Cassandra foretold doom she was always RIGHT.  So drawing a parallel with today’s politicians and bankers was the very opposite of what Tsipras wanted, and has exposed him to Twitter ridicule. 

Cassandra was right (but not believed) when she foretold that her brother Paris, by abducting Helen from Sparta to Troy, would cause ten years of war and Troy’s downfall. She was right (but not believed) when she advised the Trojans to leave the Trojan Horse on the beach, and by no means to bring it into the city.  See Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Trojan Horse: Cassandra got it right
So who was Cassandra? A princess of Troy, both beautiful, and considered insane and a liar. This was the consequence of being cursed by the god Apollo. She had consented to have sex with him in exchange for the gift of prophecy, and then broke her promise. The curse was that she was simultaneously given the gift of prophesy, and destined never to be believed. This is how the myth is told in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. There are other versions  if you’re interested, but you shouldn’t be, and neither should I, as we should be interested in what's going to happen in Greece.

The Irish left wing deputy Richard Boyd Barret commented this week:

“While [Irish prime minister] Enda Kenny hob-knobbed in Davos this week with the very people who inflicted such misery on the people of this country and Europe, the Greek people have shown us that our real allies are the ordinary citizens of Europe and that we need a European-wide movement of people power to demand debt relief and an end to austerity."

In closing, let's note alarm that Syriza has felt obliged to go into coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks who (if my information is correct) are racist and anti-immigrant ... and there are signs already of Tsipras compromising on
Syriza's programme and dropping some of their more radical proposals. But all the more reason to manifest support for Syriza outside Greece. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Coins in a museum - not as dull as it sounds

To the British Museum to see coins. Accidentally though, as my intention was to view a small exhibition about Indian Ocean trade in ancient times, of which more another day perhaps. Weaving my way last Tuesday through the galleries in search of room 69B, coins were in truth far from my thoughts. I normally have little difficulty walking past these quintessential museum objects, as they squat unblinking in their display cabinets. But a cluster of visitors round a small table aroused my curiosity. I discovered they were passing a small collection of coins from hand to hand, encouraged by a young curator named Kate whose only stricture was that we had to hold the coins over the table in case they fell through the cracks between the floorboards.

The bronze bar is mighty heavy. It's a tax remittance
Apart from the bronze bar, the heaviest was a copper 2d (bottom right, that’s a two-penny coin pronounced tuppeny piece) dated 1797. Jane Austen may have handled it. But unlikely, as it proved unpopular due to its excessive weight, and was withdrawn after a couple of years.  Known as a cartwheel.

A gold Dinar from Egypt around 1052 CE (top row, middle). Famed for the purity of its gold, it was much coveted in the West. Also much counterfeited in the West, using low quality gold.

When I was small my father read me Treasure Island of which my only abiding memory is a parrot chattering "Pieces of Eight" perched on Long John Silver’s shoulder, the prototype of all pirates. And that’s more or less all I knew. But now I can tell you that a piece of eight was 8 Reales (top right), also known as a Spanish Dollar. Struck from South American silver, it was the form in which the Spanish galleons transported their bullion across the Atlantic. By the late 18th century Pieces of Eight had become the first worldwide currency. 

A massive bronze bar weighed well over a kilogramme.  To pay your taxes in the Roman Republic, about 300 to 250 BCE, you had to buy one of these 'struck bronze' objects and take it to the tax office, or so we were told.  They are mentioned on this Wikipedia page, but not the bit about tax.

Silver siege money of the English Civil War (bottom row, middle). Minted in Newark in 1646, though minted may not be the right word as it wasn’t really a coin.  'Money of necessity' was issued by towns loyal to the King Charles, perhaps to reassure mercenaries, or simply to allow everyday transactions. Siege money was made from jewellery donated (I wonder?) by the citizens, and the one we handled had a hole near one corner, suggesting it was made into a pendant after the Restoration to proclaim “I fought for the king”.

Fakes, ancient and modern. £1 coins on the left, Roman on the right.
That was the end of the hands on session. Next, in a nearby case I came across the fakes. Roman coins and £1 coins. But the fake Roman coins weren't modern fakes to fool collectors, no: they were faked around 340 CE.  A hoard of 815 coins was found in Suffolk, faked from copper alloy. How do curators know they are fake, one wonders?  It's all here. And another fact: one in every 35 £1 coins in circulation today is a fake.

Lastly, what desperate circumstances impelled someone to bury this jug of gold coins under the floor in a house near Corbridge in Northumberland in 160 CE? They wedged two bronze coins in its neck in an attempt at deception, and never came back to reclaim their hoard. But whoever they were hiding it from didn't discover it either. It was found in 1911. When the jug was lifted the bottom fell out.

If you'd told me I was going to write a blog about coins in a museum I wouldn't have believed you. So there's a little lesson for us all.

Frederick Douglass and coffee at the embassy

Group photo in the embassy, includes Swedes - Tom's book - Tom (right) presents book to ambassador
Last Monday to a coffee morning hosted by the Irish ambassador in London. We have Frederick Douglass to thank, a major figure in US 19th century history, though little known on this side of the Atlantic.  Indeed I had never heard of Douglass till Tom told me about him. That’s Tom Chaffin, husband of my Swedish cousin Margareta and a professor of history at the University of Tennessee. The occasion was Tom presenting the ambassador with his book Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary

Frederick Douglass - Daniel O'Connell
When they met in 1845
Douglass was about 27, O'Connell was 70.
So you could say these images are ill-chosen, for which I can only apologise
A memorable day, and what I didn't expect, the ambassador, Dan Mulhall, was himself an historian and a specialist on Daniel O'Connell, so had a real and not mere diplomatic interest in Tom's book, which includes Frederick Douglass's meeting with O'Connell in 1845. O'Connell is himself a colossus of Irish 19th century history. Dublin’s main street and bridge are named in his honour. A little digression here, the original name was Sackville Street changed in 1924 amidst a flurry of patriotic post-independence re-naming, and I always assumed O'Connell Bridge got its name at the same time as the street. But I crossed the bridge last week and was surprised by a plaque saying the Dublin Corporation re-named it in 1882. And to heap digression on digression, according to Wikipedia O'Connell Bridge is unique in Europe as the only traffic bridge wider than it is long: a circumstance evident in the photo below, though it had previously escaped me. Douglass’s bridge is in Washington DC, but I've sought in vain for any idiosyncratic facts about it to entertain you with.

Top, O'Connell Bridge over the Liffey in Dublin: broader than it is long.
Bottom, Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge over the Anacostia in Washington, D.C: rather dull.
A bit more about Douglass. He escaped bondage in Maryland in 1838 aged about 20, and eventually earnt a living as an abolitionist lecturer, travelling widely across the North, enthralling audiences and raising funds for the campaign. When his prominence brought him into danger from slave catchers he crossed the Atlantic to lecture in the British Isles. Tom’s book is about the four months he spent in Ireland, and Daniel O’Connell’s influence on him. There were complex reasons why Douglass avoided taking sides on the Irish national question, which Tom deals with in this 2011 New York Times article.  Also worth reading, this one about Douglass and Lincoln, and how he influenced the president’s thinking on the emancipation question in the latter half of the Civil War.  An aspect of Irish and American history that I find of abiding interest, is the widespread Irish-American support for slavery, and hostility towards abolitionists. Here's a review of Tom’s book that focuses on this, and also on Douglass and the famine.

A salute

Can't finish this post without saluting John Green, Chairman of the Glasnevin Trust, who was the fixer for the day. Not only did he fix the embassy meeting, but also a lecture for Tom at Dublin’s Glasnevin Museum a couple of days earlier, and moreover he fixed a guided tour of London’s Tower Hill Memorial where my Swedish great uncle Axel is remembered. My mother’s sister Barbro was especially keen to see this. Axel lost his life on a torpedoed British merchant ship in 1917.

No space here for an essay on Glasnevin Cemetery. Originally established by Daniel O’Connell in 1828. If you’ve an interest in Irish history, the cemetery and museum are a must. My cousin Meta and I had a guided tour in twilight, magical! 

And finally, I said Douglass is little known on this side of the Atlantic. But Meta tells me our uncle Gösta used to give his books as presents, so maybe I ought to have said “little known to me” …  

John Green, fixer and Chairman of Glasnevin Trust

Thursday, December 25, 2014

On Christmas trees and the Garden of Eden

Titian imagines Adam dissuading Eve from plucking another apple.
1570, Prado Museum, Madrid
I've retold the Adam and Eve tale as one of my children's stories.  
At a Christmas Eve night mass, where Martha was the little drummer boy in a nativity pageant, my eye was caught by a parish leaflet featuring a "prayer round the Christmas tree".  Having recently become curious about the history of Christmas trees, I read on, and was informed that the Christmas tree should remind us of the tree in the garden of paradise, a tree of wisdom and knowledge laden with every good thing, and god's gift to all human beings.

Huh?  What sort of theology is this?

Unless my memory deceives me, Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge, and when they did, were slung out on their ear.  How is that god's gift to all human beings? Whoever wrote this church leaflet is trying a bit too hard methinks. Striving to gloss over the Christmas tree's history as a pre-existing pagan tradition sitting uneasily within Christianity  ...

… and warming to my theme, I could have written a nice little blog in this vein, but for the fact that some googling has revealed there's more to the history of Christmas trees than I knew.   I assumed them to have been part of Northern European culture for generations before the missionaries arrived, but it seems it's not as simple as that. So far as I can tell they're much more recent, around 1500, and come from Germany, in one region of which they used to be hung upside down.  Scandinavia not mentioned to my surprise. And Martin Luther seems to have had a hand in the matter.  I must get my ducks in a row (the first time I've used that expression
and dare I hope the last) and write something more considered this time next year.

And lastly why are Christmas trees shaped like Christmas trees? They’ve evolved that way to let the snow slide off. More on

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Monkeying with the clocks

Here in Cork we get half an hour extra daylight in the evening, though our mornings are dark. That’s because we use the same time zone as Britain whilst lying half an hour west of Greenwich. So the gloom and darkness complaint that arises at this time of year affects us less acutely. Here's a sample, in The Observer’s editorial last Sunday:-

For the next five months, the nation can again anticipate evenings marked by their gloom and darkness, thanks to Greenwich Mean Time, which was reintroduced early this morning.

Few welcome the abandonment of British Summer Time, one of the least appetising events of the calendar, and opinion polls in England and Wales make it clear there is a healthy support for the halting the practice of putting clocks back in autumn so that we have earlier sunrises and sunsets and darker evenings.

The editorial goes on to suggest that retaining British Summer Time in the winter, with the addition of an extra hour to clocks in March (Double Summer Time), would save money and lives. Lives on the roads because the evening rush hour wouldn't be so dark, and money because there would be less need for electric light in the early evening.  This kind of scheme is always referred to as daylight saving.

Greenwich Observatory. Where midday really is midday.
And it's said every year at this time when the clocks go back.  But the point I'm coming to is this: how have we got ourselves into this back to front way of running a society?  When The Observer talks of “gloom and darkness, thanks to Greenwich Mean Time”, they make Greenwich Mean Time sound like a perverse invention designed as a kind of torment.   But hey, all it means is that the Sun is at its highest in the sky at midday (in Greenwich that is). Which is exactly as it should be.  (In York too; in Bradford the Sun doesn't reach the zenith till almost 7 minutes past midday; here in Mitchelstown Co Cork, 32 minutes past.)

If we feel so strongly about dark evenings, the answer is clear. Bed at 8. Up at 4. Standard working day from 7 am to 3 pm, which even in midwinter finishes in full daylight. Outlandish? Of course. But only because sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries our forebears did something called nocturnalisation.  Staying up half the night and sleeping till half way through the morning. The daylight saving that The Observer is calling for amounts to this:  to monkey with the clocks so as to wind this nocturnalisation back, nearer to the way things once used to be. 

Jiggery pokery

I'm not really against monkeying with the clocks. I just want to get it off my chest that the whole thing’s mad.  We’ve nocturnalised our society and now we want to unnocturnalise it. Just why nocturnalisation occurred is a puzzle I wrestle with from time to time.  I touched on the history of it a couple of years ago in a piece called How we colonised the night.

As a postscript I should add that the foregoing is entirely a parochial mid-latitude issue. In Scotland monkeying with the clocks probably wouldn't work. And in Luleå no amount of jiggery pokery is going to stretch out the three or four hours of watery light that’s the midwinter ration. In the tropics on the other hand, the Sun never rises and sets far from 6 o’clock.  I remember when I was in Trinidad in my youth observing that the earliest sunset was 5:45, and the latest sunset was 6:15. Here's a flavour of the conversation you would have sitting on the porch sipping rum and coke and the crickets chirping. “You noticed the sun’s setting much later now?” ... “Yes,
tonight it was 7 minutes past. Two weeks ago it was 4 minutes past.”

Finally, here's a useful short history of daylight saving measures. Double Summer Time was first used in Germany in the First World War, quickly followed by Britain and many other countries.