Tag Archives: muslim extremism

Why is religion absent from good conversation.

Why religion so absent from good conversation? When I speak with my friends I avoid the subject, good manners deeming as embarrassing subject not fit for polite conversation. Similarly religion is missing from serious public and political debate. Why when it informed the thinking of so many political and intellectual greats in the past?One reason is that peculiar kind of unthinking religion has crowded out other types of religious thought from the public and political debate. This religion is subordinate to a political ideology, that of the political conservatives. They use this sacred something from the past to counter all that they hate about modernity. Women controlling their bodies through contraception or abortion, is one such hated modernity

Religious conservatives may claim that I am wrong in calling there’s an unthinking religion or more unkindly a religion of ignorance. Having an interest in Hellenic philosophy and the Neo-Platonists, I have found that an American Catholic publisher that is a good source of texts on this subject. When scanning reviews of other books in the catalogue, I noticed one book by an author opposed to abortion. He claimed that abortion had long been regarded as wrong by Western thinkers, even those from the classical period. He cited Musonius Rufus, the Roman stoic thinker as such opponent of abortion. This was the same Musonius Rufus who in his role as magistrate had condemned Justin Martyr to death and ordered the torture and execution of his Christian followers. This writer’s failure to adequately check on his source is illustrative of the ignorance, so often demonstrated by the political religious right.

Obviously the barbaric actions of Muslims extremists as demonstrated in the Bataclan attacks discredit religion thinking from a place in the mainstream of political and public discourse. However there is another Islam that is very different, an Islam typified by Sufism. An Islam tolerant of others and one that emphasises concern for the community. A religion that has been subject to more violent attacks by Muslim extremists than any Western community.

What I want is good religious thinking and practice to replace bad religion so often used in the public discourse. A religion that admits of the mystery of life, best explained in the words of Heraclitus, ‘nature hides in plain sight’. Life is not knowable or at least in its entirety, there remains the part that is unknowable, and it is this unknowable that religion addresses. Religion is a paradox, it admits to the unknowable and yet claims to this unknowable makes itself known to man. William Hague is an unlikely figure to quote in support of my contention, he spoke of a feeling of oneness with nature, being part of something greater, when walking in remote parts of Yorkshire. A Christianity described as nonsense by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet for a deist it speaks of the mystery that is at the heart of religion.

What William Hague was expressing was the belief that appearance is not all, there is a something beyond immediate experience, that gives it its unity and coherence. When Carlo Rovelli suggests that there is a something, probably information that gives reality its structure, I feel that I am not so wrong after all. Heraclitus wrote that nature was hiding in plain sight. A statement of the religious experience that cannot I believe be bettered. This sentiment Pierre Hadot states has been the inspiration for thinkers since the classical period, German Romantic writers such as Goethe demonstrate this. For Goethe it was metamorphous that was the engine of natural evolution and change. He searched for the originals from which all things developed through the process of metamorphous. Later Romantics such a Schelling saw will as mysterious something that drove human development. He used the meanderings of the Rhine as a metaphor for the German will. The inevitable something that although it took many unexpected turns was the driving force of German history.

For me this something is an unknowable, I find the medieval text, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing,’ an expression of the mysticism which I share. Can I quote Joe a former teaching colleague and former Jesuit priest, ‘God is not some father figure up there, beyond the clouds‘.

There is a rational mysticism which I believe was demonstrated in the lives of the great medieval scholastics such as Duns Scotus. He writes that God is infinite and as such finite beings such as ourselves cannot have the means to know God. Although God is unknowable as such he does make himself known to humanity, though a variety of religious experiences. The rituals of the religious service are one such way. For a Catholic Christ’s presence is present in the ritual of Holy Communion. Although Duns Scotus practised those contemplative mystical practices of a cleric, yet he was also a supreme logician. Religious mysticism was the foundation on which his thought rested, but that mysticism did not cloud his thinking or make him less of a rational thinker. Descartes was one more secular minded philosopher that mined the writings off Duns Scotus for his use in his own work. Mystics can be as hard nosed and practical as others of a more secular persuasion. It is unfortunate that for many religious mysticism is associated with orange robed Hari Krishna monk.

Mysticism is for me accepting the mystery of life, a mystery that is not amenable to the reason or rational thought. Yet a something that informs my life. Not knowing means humility, accepting limits on knowing. Unlike the realist who knows, as everything that is, is out there to be seen and observed. Realism of this kind dominates the political debate. There is an arrogance in the speaking and conduct of those who know, if there are only a limited number of facts at your disposal, it is easy to know. Particularly if these known truths come in simple easy to understand ideological boxes, such as Neo-liberalism. The Neo-liberal confidence belief that they and only they know the truth means that it that they adopt a hectoring, bullying and often irritated tone towards those who don’t know. One merely has to hear a ‘knowledgable’ British politician speak to recognise this truth.

Not knowing means being respectful to others or other ideologies or beliefs. What it means is a profession of tolerance towards others. Perhaps this example illustrates my viewpoint. The Knights Templar were the successful shock troops of the Crusader army that invaded Palestine. Residence in Palestine bought them into contact with the ‘unknown heathen’. Evidence suggests that they adopted some of the beliefs and practices of the more educated and sophisticated Muslims. One was the requirement for initiates to the order to tread on and deface an image of Jesus Christ. This was not as the inquisition thought an act of blasphemy, but the Sufi religious practice of defiling images of God. In doing so the initiate learnt that the worship of God was not to be confused with the worship of idols. Ignorance of the Inquisitors prevented them from understanding that these Templars were acting according to the Biblical injunction that Christians should not worship any graven idols.* A very old story, but one that illustrates my point, that those who know that they know all to often act in ignorance.

Being religious to me means accepting the mystery and wonder that is life. What I profess is a Socratic ignorance. I don’t know the answers, as that would be thinking that I had the powers and knowledge of a being far superior to me. However what I do know is several possible and probable answers. In fact my knowledge of particular topics and subjects is often superior to those who ‘know’.

Practising mysticism is a uniquely individual experience. It’s a unique and exciting voyage of exploration, one in which there are no guides other than yourself. Mysticism is a uniquely individual act, is an act which is beyond the control of the church authorities. As it is a questioning of everything that is known, it is regarded as suspicion by these very authorities. Past mystics such as Theresa of Avilia are acceptable to the church as their works are part of the church’s canon and as such present no challenge to its authority. Contemporary mystics challenge the churches’ authority. The mysticism of the questioning individual is the religion for those that believe the best life is a pilgrimage, that is a constant but unfilled search for the truth. As J.S.Mill stated better a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.

As J.S.Mill wrote better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.

*in 1307 the French king Phillip (a monarch desperately short of money) wanted the Knights Templars suppressed so he could acquire their wealth. The Inquisition provided a justification for the suppression of this order, by forcing these men under torture to confess to blasphemous acts.

The New Generation of ‘Wreckers’ (at Westminster)


Originally the wreckers were inhabitants of the costal regions of Cornwall, who during stormy weather would lure ships on to rocks, where they would kill the surviving crew members and loot the wreck of its cargo. While today’s wreckers are very different, in that they are politicians that inhabit Westminster, their motives are very similar to those of the Cornish wreckers. They want to break up the public service organisations and sell off the most profitable parts to favoured buyers. Parts of the NHS are sold to Virgin Care, prison and probation services to Care4, the list is almost endless. These politicians would never view themselves as wreckers, they instead are the new Neo-Liberal thrusters, breaking up the old complacent society to remake it as a dynamic free market society.


The recent privatisation of the Royal Mail provides a good example of this wrecking process. The Royal Mail was established in 1840 to provide a universal mail service at a fixed price to all customers. In Neo-Liberal Britain this in the words of one expert is an anachronism. The service could be broken up into its various parts and sold to for profit providers, who motivated by the need to make profits would provide a better service. What this means in real terms is that the customers of the most profitable parts of the mail delivery service would get a better service and the least profitable customers a worse one. Consequently the government first disposed on the profitable corporate mail shot business to private contractors, then permitted these same companies to cherry pick the profitable London mail delivery service, leaving the high cost universal mail delivery service to The Royal Mail. Now the now privatised Royal,Mail is requesting that it be relieved of the burden of providing a six day a week universal service. Inevitably its request will be granted as the universal service obligation is contrary to profit making. Soon Britain will,have an expensive fragmented mail delivery service similar to that in the Netherlands, where profit making rather than service delivery is the priority.

While a dysfunctional postal service may cause some problems it does not pose a major problem for British society. We can all learn how to manage with delays in post, however the wreckers in politics seem unaware of the damage that they are inflicting on the social fabric damage in their effort to create the perfect Neo-Liberal society. It is as if they have taken a ‘wrecking ball’ to the fabric of that society, they are on the same spectrum of political leadership as Chairman Mao. He was responsible for the death of millions, when he tried to impose a communist agenda on China with the ‘Great Leap Forward’. I guess we should be content that our current leaders are content with the remaking of society only involves the immiseration of the majority, and not their death in service the higher cause. Food banks, zero hour contracts, low wages, insecurity of tenure and homelessness are the price to be paid for the ‘Great British Leap Forward’. Our leaders as with Chairman Mao hope to recreate a new society out of the ruins of the old state. Any price paid is regarded as one well paid for the creation of the day new society.

The Real Price paid for the ‘Wrecking Ball’ of Westminster politics.

As with Chairman Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ the real price paid by the people for this misguided reform is largely hidden from view. The losers are the poor, the underclass largely hidden from the view of the media, unless they are needed for examples for the purpose of scapegoating the feckless poor. Strangely enough for a political class that lauds the family as the cornerstone of society, it shows little concern about the destructive impact of its policies have on the family unit. It is recognised that financial stress in one of the main factors in family breakdown, yet successive governments have imposed more and more financial stress on the family unit.

Their Neo-Liberal or supply side side reforms require a labour force that is infinitely flexible, one that can and will move from one job to another, at a moment’s notice and one also that is so cheap to employ that high wages are no bar to employers wishing to take on extra staff. By removing employment protection laws, wage councils and emasculating the trade unions the government’s of the UK have achieved this flexible labour force so desired by businessmen and economists. Recently a think tank of Swiss millionaires lauded the UK for having the most flexible of labour markets.

The price paid for this free market in labour is high in terms of human suffering. A comparison is the family structure within the Victorian army, offers a useful parallel to today’s family. Then because of the high mortality rate amongst the soldiers a fluid family pattern developed. The loss of a male partner meant poverty for the family, so frequently the woman in the relationship had more than one partner so as to avoid the poverty that would be attendant on the death of the breadwinner. For the same reason serial monogamy was a necessity as women would need a succession of male partners, if the woman based family unit was to survive. Many middle class commentators saw army wives as little better than prostitutes, as they failed to recognise the financial stresses that made this a necessary way of life. Any reader of today’s papers will recognise this description of family life as that ascribed to the underclass. Stories abound in the tabloid press of the amoral underclass, not recognising that it’s the way the poor have of coping with the stresses of everyday life. Only a fluid weak family structure can survive in a situation of extreme financial stress.


There is the impact on the men in low wage insecure occupations, which impacts negatively on family life. As demonstrated in Wilfred Foote Whyte’s book ‘Street Corner Society’, there the men he interviewed had numerous liaisons and partners. What is he discovered was that it was not so much amoral behaviour, but shame that drove these men into having numerous sexual relations. What forced them to move on from one relationship to another was the shame of being unable to support a family properly because of their low income. Running out on the relationship was the only way to avoid the humiliation of not being able to buy one’s children clothes. This explains the prevalence of so many one parent families in the UK.

Family breakdown is not unique to the underclass, it is spread throughout society. A society that regards people as resources of labour to be used when and as the employer pleases is bound to be destructive of social relationships. Social change has made once secure jobs, such as the professions insecure. One comment strikes me as typifying today’s destructive society, a neighbour said that if she became pregnant she would have to have an abortion, as her partner’s salary would be inadequate to pay the mortgage and support a stay-at-home wife. A society such as Britain which has bought wholeheartedly into the Neo-Liberal agenda is uncaring of damage inflicted on its members if it boosts the bottom line.

What prompted this essay was the evident damage shown in our society from just a few years of the Neo-Liberal experiment. In primary schools there are an increasing number of children starting who lack social skills or in some cases language skills. (There are children of five who can only only communicate, with sounds lacking any language skills.) There are even children attending school who have rickets, the illness of poverty, once thought to have been eradicated. Blame for this is put on inadequate parents, but with the destruction inflicted on the family, it can be no surprise that damaged families produce dysfunctional, inadequate adults. Are these the people that made up the mob so feared by Victorian society?

There has been another warning sign, it has been estimated that societies where average income is less than $7,500 social discontent is endemic. Just recently recently our major cities were subject to a spate of rioting in which the police temporarily lost control of the streets. It goes almost without comment that the riots were the young on disproportionately low wages. If current trends continue with average wages continuing to fall, inner city violence may become endemic.

The Return of the Old Fear of Revolution

Strangely the best educated generation of British politicians has an appalling ignorance of the past. When at university in the 1960’s it was an age of optimism. My teachers in common with the rest of society thought that the evils of the Victorian cities were a thing of the past. Society had been remade along social democratic lines, so as to eliminate the evils of that time. Too many politicians could remember the horrors of the ‘Great Depression’ and wanted to ensure that they would never return. Yet our current generation of politicians seem to want consciously or unconsciously to return to the divided society of Victorian times. The Victorian middle classes had a constant fear of revolution and the masses. When the Chartists marched through London in 1848 to demand universal suffrage, the fearful middle classes turned out in force as special constables to police the marchers, such was their fear of revolution. Such was their fear of the masses that a series of murders in the East End of London, became magnified into the ‘Jack the Ripper’ scare. For a fearful middle class it was all to easy for to imagine that the poor areas of the East End, were the breeding ground for monsters such as Jack the Ripper. This fearful middle class fled the city and the mobs for the green suburbs. I now live in one such suburb created by the mill owners of Leeds who wanted to distance themselves from the city poor.

Now having started to create an divided and unfair society, politicians and the middle class have rediscovered their fear of the poor. Such is the fear that the rioters of 2011 that judiciary under pressure from frightened politicians handed out draconian sentences to deter future rioters. A practice common in the 19th century when hard labour and hanging were the punishments for rioting and offences against social order; however in such a divided society such punishments had little impact on reducing violence.

Today the East End of London is an area of new city blocks and affluence, yet in the recent past it was a place in which the well off feared to venture. I remember a professor telling me that when he ventured there in the 1930’s he was driven out for being posh. He was subject to stone throwing from the local youths.

Although it might be disputed by some but the fear of revolution has returned in the guise of Muslim extremists. Only today the Home Secretary warned that the likelihood of a terrorist attack was at the greatest since 9/11. It is from those areas of the ‘Other’ in which the fearful rich and well to do never venture, that they fear attack. They have declared a war on terror, they fear Muslim minority, regardless of the fact this minority has integrated well into society. While there is a justified fear of Muslim extremism, extremists are a minority and it was largely complacent policing that allowed them to thrive.

There is however a disaffection amongst the young, they see a society that is indifferent to them. It is a society that cares little for its young people, denying them good wages and housing, it is a society in which disaffection will grow. At least in the majority it’s protests that are legal, but in minority groups that are feeling oppressed a small number while turn to more violent means. Even history teaches us that this minority can be contained through good policing. The Fenians in the late nineteenth century were as dangerous as any modern Islamic terrorist and yet the police successfully contained them. Unfortunately the return of the ‘great fear’ of the dispossessed ‘other’ means that our political leaders will inevitably overact to a small disaffected group. The best advocates for the extremist cause are the politicians who constantly over estimate the power and success of them. They cannot see that Islamic extremists are as much a creation of their making, as of their religion. If a people are impoverished and brutalised through political and social change, social order and peace will be undermined, but our current complacent political class never realise that. They will instead resort to more and more repressive measures to control the simmering discontent. The 1950’s and 1960’s were an unusual period in British history, one of social peace, achieved because the vast majority felt they had a stake in maintaining the well being of society.