On Preserving the Patterns of the Sacred

When I walk past my local village church, a thought occurs to me. Religion suits those who are religious. Going to church; singing in the choir; participating in the local community; all these activities, when bound up with the church, suit those who 'love God'. For much of our history, religious practice and the code of ethics tied up therein provided the unifying framework - intellectually and socially- in which pretty much all of our activities made sense. These activities were justified - within the Christian faith - by belief in God and in the words of God.

Yet these activities can have a justification which stands quite apart from belief in a deity. We might say that the essential character of such activities is their unifying and communal nature. In fact, some might argue, their justification was always enmeshed with these social functions. Furthermore, the idea of God meant something quite different in days gone by than in the current time. Believing in an all-powerful creator and personal God made a lot of sense when the laws governing the universe were not well known. But such belief seems now to be difficult to sustain. Faith is backed into corners and gaps with the advance of science. The different aspects of God - the personal-ethical and the physical-creator – now seem tenuous in themselves and in relation to one an other.

Theology from an atheist point of view looks quite different from theology from the theistic perspective. Religion simply professes belief in non-existent or nonsensical non-entities. Yet the second, social point of view still holds whatever one's views on metaphysics. Whatever the guiding social ideas of an atheist community, it is possible that they would look similar to those professed by the Christian community - a set of common ethics, a time and place of coming together, reverence for the dead and for the ideals of the society; and a sense of the sacred. Since, from an atheist point of view, God either does not exist or is a nonsensical concept, the reasons given by the religious for their actions are delusions. However, there may still be a socially beneficial purpose behind religion.

Of those with non-theistic reasons for interest in Christianity, those who see it as having social purpose come closest to the notion of the noble lie in Plato's republic. The mass of people cannot understand the 'form of the good'; so the philosophers should promote a religion which symbolically represents this ineffable form.

But there is a basic problem of meaning. Which one is it? Is religion the truth? Or is it intended to be a noble lie? Our reaction to it will depend on what it purports to be. It would be best if it would settle down on one conception of itself; a conception that is in reasonable coherence with other truths that are known.

Perhaps the history of protestantism is a wish to go closer to the unadulterated truth. This makes sense for the religiously fervent, but for the doubting makes religion suicidally naked.

Even a fervent atheist might be moved by C. S. Lewis arguments1 to wish to preserve what one might term 'the patterns of the sacred'. But where does such a type of fervent atheist go? He feels disorientated because 'the desire to worship' clashes with 'the desire for truth' and his commitment to truth clashes with the theists commitment to a quite different truth. He could abandon his commitment to truth. Here are some better options:

  • He could view religion as purely ritual or traditional

  • He could try to find a meaning for the ambiguous word 'God' - perhaps finding a link to a sense of 'higher inspiration'

  • He could search for truth in philosophy and for tradition in old philosophy

  • He could find truth and beauty in art, literature, and the natural world

  • He could find communion in the community

None of these are a badge of trust; none aid discipline in hard times; none are the framing protection of a father God larger than ourselves; but together they start to make a worldly and spiritual life that makes a little bit more sense.

1 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, http://tinyurl.com/8wa545

On Writing Well

Writing well, according to William Zinsser, is a matter of simplicity & unity. Simple writing is easy to follow and is not wasteful. Unified writing has a single purpose; uses a consistent tense and pronouns; and is a delight to read. Good writing is thus a transaction between the author and reader; it defines the audience and the capacity in which we hope to address them, expressing as simply as possible the point that is being made. Zinsser suggests that we should let our personality show, using 'I' or 'we' when possible. In this way we express our personal style and establish a connection with the reader.

Beginning and endings are important to good writing. A good beginning gives the reader something to connect with, and draws him in to read the rest. Endings can sometimes bore - Zinsser suggests perhaps ending suddenly or with a quirky quotation. Technical or scientific writing provides particular difficulties. One way to practice such writing is to describe a scientific process step by step. We are thus guided not only express our ideas more clearly, but also to think in a more logical and cogent way. We should write well in order to think more clearly.

The Science Media Centre

Earlier in the year (Monday 29th September) I visited the Science Media Centre, hosted at the Royal Institution.The Science Media Centre was set up by the scientific establishment after perceived failures (e.g. BSE, GM crops, MMR and autism) to communicate science effectively.
It deals with controversial science stories. It’s activities include: Briefing journalists on controversial issues, working with press officers and ’crap-busting’
  • Vision: Accurate evidence-based scientific information

  • Mission: Easier for journalists to access best science

  • Values: Reliable, fast, accurate
It improves media coverage of science by scientists doing the media better.
The main strategies employed are ’rapid reaction’ and ’Win Win’.


Henry George and Land Taxation

In his magnum opus, 'Progress and Poverty', Henry George attempts to explain the causes of recessions and of poverty. Land is a crucial part of this. George believes the most important factor in poverty this is the ownership of land, a factor of production that is fixed in supply. The result of this limitation is that, while other factors can be increased or improved; land cannot. This makes it a very efficient and equitable tax. Instead of taxing labour or capital, we should tax land instead. This is a great work too often overlooked. His basic point is very good: the owners of land gain an economic rent from so doing. Such a rent provides a good source of government income.

If you are interested in a program to implement the work of Henry George, please see the Systemic Fiscal Reform group. http://systemicfiscalreform.org/

V for Vendetta

Imagine Britain 10 years after a devastating biological strike. The levers of the state and control of the media have been taken over by a dictator, albeit one who purports to support homely British values. Into this setting, comes an unnamed masked character who takes up against the state and the status quo. His mask is that of Guy Fawkes and his calling card "V for Vendetta".

The film begins with the destruction of the Old Bailey ("Defend the children of the poor; punish the wrongdoer") and it ends with the destruction of the Houses of Parliament. The destruction of two striking physical symbols of our society makes them in effect martyrs for what they represent.

This is a gripping film; with echoes of 1984 and at times some of the moral ambiguity of Brighton Rock or The Third Man. Its power flows from depicting a reality at odds with our image of ourself and yet close enough to the present to bite, hinting at what we might easily become.

Green New Deal: Investment For Real Wealth

On Thursday 11th December, with two friends, Ii attended an event at the IPPR on The New Economics Foundation ’Green New Deal’ii. Present were Caroline Lucas, Leader of the Green party and Ann Pettifor from Advocacy International, leading light in Jubilee 2000 affair and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation.

Here are my notes: http://www.stephenstretton.org.uk/Reviews/GreenNewDeal11thDec.pdf

Here are my thoughts, mostly taking off from what Caroline Lucas said:

  1. There are as many views about Keynes as there people

  2. Keynes is about Investment

  3. Investment means real wealth

  4. Investment doesn’t happen with uncertainty

  5. What governments can do is to eliminate uncertainty

  6. If banks cease to work - recreate another layer of banks above the existing banks.

i Vivienne Raper, Freelance; Robin Smith, Systemic Fiscal Reform; Stephen Stretton, 4CMR;

Building Infrastructure

Here is Andrew Rawnsley on the response to the financial crisis:


"Rather than encourage people to squitter money on imports, the
government should build us an infrastructure fit for this century"

Well said.

New Gadgets

OK, I've just reached a state of computer-system nirvana.

On the hardware side, I'm now using an Alphasmart Dana (bought on eBay for £100). The best way to describe this is combining the simplicity of an electronic typewriter with the convenience of a Psion organizer.

On software side, I use Google extensively (Gmail and Calendar). I use CompanionLink for Googleto synchronize my online calendar with the Psion desktop/Alphasmart calendar.

In terms of editing documents, I'm using OpenOffice 3.0 which looks wonderful. This has full support for mathematical formulae, and can export to MediaWiki or Latex format. It links smoothly with (open source) Zotero, which is a Firefox plugin for bibliography management.

Reluctantly, I'm using Microsoft Word .doc format again, just because everyone (including my Alphasmart) can use this.

This system seems to work very well, so now I'm going to use it!!

Nick Pidgeon on Risk, Climate and Nuclear Energy Psychology

On 27 November 2008 I went to a talk by Prof Nick Pidgeon of School of Psychology, University of Cardiff on the Public Understanding of Risk, particularly in the context of climate change and nuclear energy. His talk was extremely interesting in the research on the psychology of risk acceptance. Climate Change is very serious; we need education and dialogue and an 'Analytic-Deliberative' process.

Full notes stored at: http://www.stephenstretton.org.uk/Reviews/PidgeonRisk27Nov.pdf

Environmental and Social Entrepreneurship

On Wednesday 26th November Cambridge University Entrepreneurs organised an event about Environmental and Social Goals in Entrepreneurship. The talk included NICKY DEE, IAN STEED of the Humanitarian Society and TAMAS BERTENYI - R&D Director of Quiet Revolution

There was lots of useful tips for starting social enterprises. Important common point is finding out the need that you are trying to address

It was a good talk, and I've written up the event here.

Robin Williams: High Performance Rowing Coach

On Friday 28th November; Robin Williams, former CUBC and UK Rowing coach explained his successful approach. He suggested that the most important thing is a person or persons establishing a culture of success from the top down. Principles make a difference. its necessary to be realistic and be optimistic; let's set a goal and work out the first step.

'High Performance' is about doing something the best way. The process of desiring success starts with Recreation leading to Appetite and then Ambition, ending finally with Determination, with an important role for Self-belief and Will Power. Rowing is about working as a group and bonding. It takes time to establish the right culture. Coaches are a team too. Everyone has a job to do!

Where do you start? You, start with a dream, this leads to self-belief. Its necessary to focus on processes, rather than outcomes. Assess risks and, where necessary, change processes. Measure success, review and then improve. It helps to start from the basics.

Dreams can come true but the dream is the last inch. It's a series of steps. Ambition is the fuel. Appetite starts it off. Most important thing is to create a good purposeful atmosphere; a space with desire.