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A QUESTION OF BELIEF

by

David Thompson



From the homophobic hysteria of the Anglican Church to the post-invasion manoeuvres of Western politicians, the question of belief has, in recent months, become a subject of much discussion. "Do you think Blair believes what he says?" I was recently asked. Such was the tone of the enquiry, the answer seemed to be a matter of inexplicable gravity, the very fulcrum of justice.

When faced with criticism, Blair's principal political technique is an ever present air of good faith. Following a joint address to the US congress, George Bush hailed Blair as "a leader of conviction". Indeed, the ongoing debate over the Iraq war has often hinged on whether we believe that the prime minister believes whatever falls from his lips. Blair's "history will judge us" speech may have sounded suitably high-minded, but this appeal to posterity for vindication is as logically problematic as the pre-emptive 'retaliation' that spawned it. And, given the apparent suicide of the MoD scientist Dr David Kelly, which was reported on The Guardian's website directly underneath those words, the sentiment proved to be supremely ill-timed.

Yet conviction is evidently assumed to be the most virtuous of defences, a shield against all but the most cynical of criticism. (Such manoeuvres call to mind an early Simpsons episode in which Homer, accidentally elevated to executive status, buys a new suit and is bolstered with the words: "Don't judge me, love me.") The implication is clear: if a man believes what he says, he must, therefore, be trustworthy and, by implication, benign. We merely need to have faith.

This confabulation of terms is not entirely surprising since belief has much in common with popular ideas of morality, in the sense that when people talk about 'morality', they often employ much the same the same sleight-of-hand. I would argue that belief is neither moral nor benign. Nor is it synonymous with honesty.

Broadly speaking, when a person claims to 'believe' in what they say, they rarely mean: "I have checked my reasoning for errors and have verified the facts, in so far as they are verifiable." What is generally meant is: "I am willing to ignore the gaps in my reasoning and am prepared to discount any facts that do not suit me, or of which I am unaware. I will cling to this position regardless of what happens or is subsequently discovered." This is, of course, a pathological position, and might more simply be called bigotry.

When cornered into discussions of morality, human beings are often disingenuous or, at best, conveniently confused. For most people, 'morality' seems to mean 'sanctimonious disapproval', which is not the same thing at all. This assumption is pretty obvious when people argue against drug use or 'aberrant' sexuality. There's almost never a coherent principle to support their position, they just don't like what someone else is doing. (In a column for The Sunday Times, Melanie Phillips voiced her moral alarm at the widespread use of drugs, her tone bordering on the hysterical: "Ecstasy, cocaine and cannabis are an intrinsic part of the club scene. Why aren't police raiding all such places every night? It's as if grievous bodily harm had got out of control and people were urging the legalisation of assault." No doubt Ms. Phillips has little time for the notion that who puts what inside his or her own body could, in fact, be no-one else's business.) Of course, those voicing similar disapproval would never be prepared to admit to such motives, as spitefulness and envy might reflect badly on their egos. No-one wants to look cheap and bitter, least of all the people who actually are cheap and bitter.

Of the minority who entertain moral ideas with any kind of seriousness, most seem to arrive at 'moral' convictions via a curious short-circuiting of the analytical process. Instead of questioning their actions and pondering the consequences for others, they look for the nearest off-the-peg argument that happens to support how they intended to act anyway.

The billionaire currency speculator George Soros recently provided a stunning example of this tactic when interviewed for The Observer. Soros, you may remember, was one of the speculators who, in 1997, crippled the Thai and Malaysian economies, leaving hundreds of thousands of people destitute and prompting accusations of sedition. Soros is also known as "the man who broke the pound", a moniker won by his role in the "Black Wednesday" sterling crisis of 1992. By forcing the UK government out of the exchange rate mechanism, Soros extracted an estimated 1 billion for his troubles, a fact he acknowledges in his book The Crisis of Global Capitalism: "When I sold sterling short. I was taking money out of the pockets of British taxpayers. But if I had taken the social consequences into account, it would have thrown off my risk/reward calculations.... Fortunately, [financial markets] are anonymous, [which] allowed me not to dirty my hands." Thus, because neither the British taxpayer nor the homeless Malaysians knew for sure the names of those who preyed on them, they were, according to George, never actually assaulted.

Soros can also be credited with making his trademark hedge funds a mainstream tool of profiteering. Once exclusively a stratagem of the super-rich, the hedge funds' complicated (and increasingly abstract) inner workings can overnight extract prosperity from falling share prices, collapsing economies and other forms of misfortune. The widespread and fashionable use of such predatory tools is more than just symbolically distasteful. With typical chutzpah and a total lack of ironic recognition, Soros has recently lamented the political turmoil and social insecurity that all too frequently results from their use, most notably in Asia. (Significantly, Soros cancelled a promotional tour to Thailand due to concerns that his appearance would spark violent protests from those whose livelihoods were destroyed some five years earlier.)

Yet George insists his much-publicised philanthropy is "not out of a sense of guilt." Instead, he claims a more light-hearted rationale: "Having made enough money to keep the wolf from the door, I'm concerned with making the world a better place." This failure by Soros to identify his own malign influence is, to say the least, implausible, since a speculator of his standing and experience must, by definition, have understood the likely consequences of his actions. Contrary to the prevailing free market catechism, instant wealth does not pop into existence from some miraculous quantum vacuum. It is, rather prosaically, moved from one place to another.

The financier's efforts to highlight his philanthropic conversion reveal a similarly twisted logic: "I realised that it's money that makes the world go round, so I might as well make money if I want to have influence over the world. Making money came first and I was pretty single-minded about it. But having made it, I could then indulge my social concerns." Setting aside the notion of social concerns as indulgences rather than imperatives, one might still wonder whether the phrase "single-minded" is a euphemistic substitute for "uninhibited by the prospect of causing injury to others."

By casually disregarding the connections between means and ends, Soros sidesteps a number of bothersome details that might otherwise tarnish his self-regard; such as how his fortune was being made, and at whose expense. Consequently, it seems unlikely that George has ever paused to ask himself whether the 'earning' of his fortune has in fact done more social damage than could ever be undone by his philanthropic ventures. Deified self-interest can easily corrode rational thought, but the speculator's display of causal autism is nonetheless audacious.

Few of those who voice their moral convictions are apparently troubled by the notion that doing the right thing (or at least doing a slightly better thing) might involve behaving differently, or forgoing some opportunity for gain or gratification. More commonly, the believer seems to want to be absolved (or 'right') without giving anything up. What they want is righteousness without the risk of effort, frustration or personal sacrifice. Instead, they simply collude with their own subconscious (or semi-conscious) preferences. The fact that some measure of semi-conscious subterfuge is involved is what makes such piety inherently dishonest. The question is simply one of degree.

And belief seems to work in a similar way. Belief generally corresponds with personal desires, hidden agendas, cultural assumptions, or some combination of the above. The particulars of the belief in question -and its ramifications for others- remain unconsidered, or at least very selectively considered. (And the question remains: who's doing the selection?)

Almost all of the believer's effort is directed to defending or rationalising a position that has already been chosen (for no good reason that the believer would ever admit to). Thus, a 'belief' in some afterlife or some sexual prohibition -or a justification for military action- is confused, at least semi-consciously, with a desire that this were so. The scandalised air of the 'gay bishop' debate invites a suspicion that Anglican prayers end with the line: "Isn't it wonderful we hate the same things?"

A moral principle can only legitimately be called such if it carries the risk that the said principle may one day cost you something, like popularity, for instance. Yet, those who claim sincerity as a shield rarely appear to conceive that their pantomime of conviction could come at a price. Writing in the London Review of Books, John Lanchester identified this tendency in our present prime minister: "[Blair] is desperate to convince us that he believes in the rightness of his actions. This has been a fault-line in his personality from the beginning. His dewy-eyed, slightly fumbling sincerity -his brilliantly articulate impersonation of earnest inarticulacy -has all along been tied to this self-projection as a Good Man. Blair seems to want this sense of himself to override all the boring factual details about things like why we went to war. Blair just wants us to take his word for it. It is exactly analogous to the point Thatcher got to when her sense of her own rightness began to override her sense of external reality."

Blair's religiosity may rarely be explicit, yet it oozes through his every utterance. And therein lies the danger. A cautionary example of what can go wrong can be found in contemporary America, a country supposedly founded on the pursuit of private religious freedom. Right-wing Christian evangelism is now the dominant religious -- and political -- power. Republican fundamentalists push their vindictive dogma into the public realm, hijacking democracy and using government legislation and state subsidies to enshrine their own mental illness as a cultural norm. Being visibly agnostic is now practically unpatriotic -- and would effectively bar any presidential candidate from office.

And surely only a God-fearing nation would be so comfortable with its president announcing to the world, as Bush senior did in July 1988: "I will never apologise for the United States. I don't care what the facts are..." Substitute "United States" with "The One True Faith" and -bingo! -- it's the same mindless certainty, a denial of possibilities: "I don't care what the facts are..." How do you negotiate with someone who says this? And, perhaps more to the point, what part does the truth play in a mind so gorged on absolute conviction?

The theologically inclined may well find these questions misguided or objectionable. Most likely many would argue that faith is a positive assertion of an ineffable truth, one that lies beyond material evidence and rational analysis. And, conceivably, for some that could-possibly- be the case. But, short of mystical revelation, the point is necessarily rather difficult to debate. Mercifully, personal revelation, whether numinous or deranged, poses little threat to the broader culture. But, when insinuated into the political realm, metaphysical convictions can be -- and frequently are -- dangerous in the extreme. Indeed, one of Europe's greatest historical innovations was the separation of church and state. Without the freedoms afforded by that secular divide, the ethnic and religious multiculturalism that many of us take for granted would, with awful irony, be all but unimaginable.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Thompson is a freelance writer, whose work has appeared in the arts and books pages of The Times, The Observer and Eye: the International Review of Graphic Design. An archive of his published work can be found at his website.




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