Thursday, January 31, 2008

Perhaps inspired by my recent encounters with the representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (whose leader and prophet died last week at the age of 97 – presumably they now have to somehow appoint another prophet), as the Mormons prefer to call themselves, I recently borrowed a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion from the local British Council library (still tolerated by the regime here, unlike its Russian counterpart). I’m only about half way through it so far, but up to this point I have to say I find it curiously unsatisfying, and I’m trying to put my finger on exactly why this is. Compared to the little I’ve read from Book of Mormon I certainly find it a great deal more credible, in fact I agree so far with the vast majority of what Dawkins has to say, but… something’s not quite right here.

Maybe its because essentially the book seems rather pointless. Granted, atheists are discriminated against worldwide as ungodly heathens or whatever preposterous insults certain ignorant and distressingly unimaginative swine might grunt at us, so there is at least in theory good reason, both intellectually and morally, to defend the atheist position, but realistically what is this book going to change? The case for atheism, as I see it, is very strong if not overwhelming, but religion, delusion as it most probably is, remains a major force to be reckoned with. And by the look of things Dawkins is going to do a fat lot of good about that.

One problem is that I find it hard to believe anyone will be converted by this book. One of the great strengths of religion is its gargantuan ability to make excuses for itself in the face of devastating evidence and vastly superior arguments to the contrary. Its devotees proudly, in most cases smugly, declare that it requires a “leap of faith”, which therefore makes it virtually impossible to argue against with recourse to any kind of reason. Religious people frequently pride themselves on their disdain for mere earthbound, prosaic intellectual rigour. They are automatically on a higher plane from the start, since they can do something we can’t, i.e. believe what to us is unbelievable. How do you win a rational argument against that? How do you even begin one? Add to that the probability that very few religious people are going to even open Dawkins’ book, and what have you got? A fairly superfluous piece of work.

You might protest that I ought to rather applaud his courage, given the magnitude of the odds against him. This might be easier to do however if he didn’t spend so much time sniping at soft targets. For example:

· In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.

· The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.

· The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days

· Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.

· If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.

· If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.

· The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but was ‘assumed’ bodily into heaven.

· Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘becomes’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Yes Richard, all bloody right, I think I get the point, my brain is now suitably overflowing with images of sledgehammers and nuts. To me this all seems drearily obvious, whilst to Christians also it’s no more than a confirmation of what they already knew, that to non-believers their faith must seem absurd, which in turn makes their stance all the more heroic. The overall tone is a mirror image of the self-righteous complacency of those who are able to perform the leap of faith; in his tiresomely mocking repetition of “the fatherless man” (you mean a bastard? tee-hee!), to use one example, he is saying little more than “look how wrong you are and how right I am, look how much better I am than you”, and the feeling I come away with is that this is the real reason he wrote it.

There’s also the problem of Dawkins’ desperation to pounce on religion at every opportunity, such as his evaluation of the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and former Yugoslavia as basically attributable to religion, which is not only lazily reductionist but simply inaccurate. In combination with Dawkins’ by turns facetious and petulant tone, the whole thing starts to stink of a rather puerile obsession. Naturally, he’s got to get a whole book out of the thing, so it may be a bit unfair to criticise him for being so comprehensive in his demolition, and additionally if I accuse him of merely stating the obvious whenever I agree with him whilst taking offence at what I perceive as his inaccuracy when I don’t, it could be said that, to use religious terminology, he’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. So far, from what I’ve read, I couldn’t say that the book is entirely without redeeming features, it contains a few interesting facts and by pointing out certain inconsistencies in the scriptures at least saves me from having to trawl all the way through the bloody bible, which would no doubt be infinitely more tedious. But the impression I have at this stage is that Dawkins on the whole is pretty boring himself, and this is perhaps his greatest failing – he’s just a bad writer. Whereas Hitchens, who now and then erupts with opinions I strongly disagree with, does at least for the greater part seem able to do so with a fair degree of panache, with Dawkins this is sadly lacking.

If it improves miraculously in the second half I promise to repent publicly. Don’t hold your breath though.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mike Strutter Smoketank

To represent the alternative view, here's a few words from a libertarian

On a positive note….

Almost unbelievably, a total ban on smoking in all Czech pubs and restaurants may be less than a year away. Some politicians are pressing for an introduction of the ban from 1 January next year, and there is a real chance they may succeed, in which case I shall lose a bet and have to buy Matthew Sweney a crate of beer (three years ago he said it would be introduced within five years, I said within ten – damn my doleful pessimism). But is this really so unbelievable, given that so many European countries have already introduced the ban smoothly and successfully? Actually yes it is. And it’s still a case that I’ll believe it when I see it, but I’m convinced that it’s merely a matter of time.

Why is this so miraculous then? Well, even in the countries where it has been introduced, if you’d raised the possibility of a smoking ban 10 or 15 years before it came into force most people would have looked at you as if you were mad. And it’s about time I belatedly apologised to anti-smoking martyr Roy Castle. I always used to think he was a wanker on Record Breakers (actually let’s face it, he was), and whilst I sympathised when he began his campaign after learning that he had terminal lung cancer as a result of passive smoking, it was undoubtedly a case of sympathy for than sympathy with, rather like one might respond to the parents of a murdered child campaigning for the return of capital punishment. At the time I was probably in quite a large majority in thinking his campaign was not only doomed but misguided, having unthinkingly swallowed a load of mendacious libertarian bullshit about some kind of “right” to smoke in public and potentially kill – yes kill – other people. Sorry Roy, you were absolutely right and I was absolutely wrong on both counts.

If public opinion has changed fast in Western Europe, it’s changing even faster here, which means yet another hefty slice of humble pie for me. Because in the past I have grouched to some of my non-Czech friends about how the Czechs can be frustratingly pig-headed and conservative in certain respects when it comes to “how things are done here”. I don’t entirely take this back, but on this particular issue I have to take off my hat to their open-mindedness and spectacular ability to perform U-turns. Only four or five years ago almost everyone I know here was utterly incredulous when I proposed banning smoking in pubs, and I knew that every time I brought the issue up I’d inevitably get called a fascist before the debate was over – which naturally provoked me all the more. Plus in addition to all the predictable knee-jerk libertarian bollocks I’d get a lot of specifically Czech dewy-eyed, nationalistic, whiny puke about how inconceivable and impracticable my vision was, how smoking was an integral part of their beguiling pub culture, just as with French café culture (and look what happened there – another one bites the dust!). As recently as 2006, the Czech Republic came lowest out of all EU countries in terms of support for a smoking ban. These days however, according to opinion polls, a good sized majority of people are now in favour. Perhaps it has been made easier for them by seeing how well it works elsewhere, but still, credit where credit’s due. Now of course the hurdle lies in getting the politicians to shift their lazy, corrupt arses, which is no mean feat in this country, illustrated by the fact that the only progress that has been made in recent years is the genius move of banning smoking at open air bus stops whilst, incredibly, repealing the previously existing lunchtime smoking ban in restaurants. One step sideways, two steps back is the traditional way of Czech politics, so there is still room for a degree of healthy scepticism. Nevertheless, shift they will, sooner or later.

Scary eh? Bloody hell, who am I going to go after now? Well, the car lobby could certainly do with a bit of righteous persecution. Or maybe people who walk their dogs on those kind of stupid elasticated leads which allow them to run all over the fucking pavement and trip you up. Authoritarian, me?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Happy, happy new year to us all, and may it be one filled with gushing floods of peace and prosperity, optimism and joy!

Yeah right, back to reality then. Although I can’t really complain, I’ve just had a highly enjoyable couple of weeks of indulgence back in the UK, so I’m all right Jack. But, and there’s always a but, I cannot escape the ubiquitous reminders that all this comes at a price as I sit in front of the telly in England sipping port and watching homes, cars, people burn in Kenya and Pakistan, and so it’s not just my body that’s returned to CZ considerably heavier than when I left, but also my conscience, sagging under the weight of white male bourgeois-liberal guilt.

Maybe watching TV’s partly what’s brought all this on. I am one of those weird individuals who not only doesn’t own (or even know how to drive) a car, but also doesn’t own a TV, so here in Spleensville CZ I am perhaps shielded from a lot of media bombardment, although I do manage to keep reasonably abreast of current affairs via the radio and internet. TV is however one of the things that is part and parcel of my twice-yearly fixes of Britishness, and frequently serves to remind me of the things that nauseate me about the UK.

I don’t wish to be unduly unpatriotic here, I invariably relish my visits back to dear old Albion, and although I have no intention of moving back there, there are a number of things I miss about the place and would certainly miss it more if I didn’t get the chance to go back regularly. Added to this, I have to admit that there may be an element of me seizing on negative aspects of modern British culture in order to reassure myself that I’ve done the right thing by leaving the place behind – after all, there are few guilty pleasures more sublime than the sybaritic, gurgling orgasm of having our prejudices confirmed – whilst I perhaps even consciously blind myself to the less salubrious side of life here by not having a TV, so I’m aware I have to keep this whole issue in perspective.

This, though, is not always an easy thing to do. Because there are moments watching British TV when I frequently find myself foaming at the mouth with disgust. This is particularly the case during commercial breaks, adverts these days more than ever packed with execrable, self-satisfied cunts just begging for a punch in their smug fucking faces. Advertising is in its very essence a form of manipulation, and perhaps because I’m blissfully unaware of this shit for most of the year it seems all the more offensively intrusive when I do come into contact with it. I can’t help feeling like a ranting old fart lamenting the decline of moral values, but it really does seem to me that with all this sickeningly wasteful consumerism and constantly needling promotion of a banal, unsatisfying culture of instant gratification, Britain truly is a degenerate and psychologically unhealthy society, more so than when I left the place. British people are increasingly stressed, anxious and potentially aggressive, as well as increasingly physically obese. Again, I’m aware that this applies to a greater or lesser extent to any developed capitalist society, but it’s the question of extent that is crucial. Although the Czech Republic may be heading in the same direction as Britain and the USA, thankfully it hasn’t got there yet, and this is confirmed when I watch the news, when my disgust is replaced by numb horror upon seeing the New Year’s Eve murder statistics. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that there is something deeply wrong, and it’s getting worse. None of this used to happen when I was a boy, in the days before….. ok, but you get the point.

On a lighter but related note I spent one unedifying hour watching numbers 20 down to 1 of the Most Annoying People of 2007, which though undeniably crap did provide me with the double whammy of a comforting illusion that I’m staying at least slightly in touch with British popular culture whilst also reassuring me that I haven’t been missing out on anything by ignoring it all year long. It was no surprise to see that it was replete with vacuous, staggeringly uninteresting twats like Lindsay Lohan (who is she anyway?), Paris Hilton and Amy Winehouse (who got the gold), with asinine, superfluous commentary by boring, inconsequential nonentities, but I was slightly surprised to find myself sympathising somewhat with some of these worthless celebs, who are clearly none too intellectually equipped to start with and are then pushed over the edge into mental breakdown by the vicious opportunism and greed of the media, as was perfectly illustrated by the gross spectacle of the paparazzi chasing an ambulance containing professional idiot Britney Spears. Not for the first time I realise I’m stating the bleeding obvious here, but perhaps many TV owners have now become immune to all this revolting, fatuous shit, whereas I still find it genuinely shocking.

About the only one of the top 20, apart from Tony Blair, to have made any impact on me at all in 2007 was not a person at all, but evidently so annoying that it was included anyway, i.e. facebook. I concede that I have a facebook account myself, and grudgingly acknowledge that there is some kind of purpose to it, sharing photos etc., but the crushing stupidity and pointlessness of being “poked” by some acquaintance far outweighs the benefits. Do I want to add the Fun Wall application? OF COURSE I FUCKING DON’T FOR FUCK’S SAKE, JUST LEAVE ME ALONE.

A new year then. A new, more positive, life-embracing me? Well, if I still lived in the UK I’d probably have had a rage-induced stroke or be in some kind of maximum security institution for the psychotically splenetic by now, so I suppose I have a great deal to be thankful for. Every new day is a bonus, a veritable gift. Happy new year.