Archives for posts with tag: Religion

The War (for Children’s Minds) by Stephen Law

{a review}

Many might recall Marx’s declaration that – up to his age – philosophers had sought only to understand or as he put it ‘describe’ the world, but the point was ‘to change it.’ This might be the kernel of many an activist but it is a quality not exclusive to socialism.

Many times in The Clarion I have argued that the way to truly change society is through education. But, in our time, education is the realm primarily of children. And this is why it is there that the battleground for reason is being fought.

Today’s teenagers are the ‘war on terror’ generation. They are borne of a war built on an impossible, unachievable abstract waged by fundamentalist positions of varying zeal from both Muslim and Christian traditions, charged with a bonus shot of Zionism. As Richard Dawkins warned in ‘The God Delusion’, the minds of these children will form the foot-soldiers of tomorrows’ war. Be this, as in the case of Palestinian teenagers for example, martyrdom (as so tragically documented in James Miller’s film ‘Death in Gaza’, which saw him shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Force) or the attack on reason in US schools. There 96% of Americans claim to believe in God and their authorities have banned books such as 1984 as well as, in some cases, the barest mention of scientific evolution, favouring instead what is righteous and good as dictated by the Bible.

All this, however, is wrapped in a paradox: while faith and irrationality might be at the root of more conflict now than in any time previous in the last century and a half, there is equally a decline at least in the Christian tradition in church-going and the role of faith in state affairs. And some would have it, therefore, a decline in morality. But does that really follow?

Welcome then teenage drop-out come post-man turned philosophy professor, Stephen Law and his ‘The War for Children’s Minds’.

Although primarily concerned with the issue of faith, it is not faith alone which Law sees as the problem – unlike Dawkins’ or Hitchens works have been characterised (although they’re more about reason) – but authority. And it is this difference in perspective which explains why obvious rebukes of the idea that only religion is synonymous with moral conduct don’t appear until page 158 (with the citing of Fukuyama).

Law’s book ‘Makes a case for a particular kind of liberal moral education, an education rooted in philosophy, not authority.’ That is, getting pupils to think independently, building arguments through rational persuasion at most.

Blair’s New Labour were (in)famous in providing the blue print for the Tories to encourage more faith schooling in the UK. But Law builds a steady case against the notion that faith has a monopoly on moral education. Instead he offers a list of skills the student might cultivate as opposed instead of deference to a higher authority just because they say so or it is written (where, for example, it is ordained that homosexuals or women are not to be treated as equals). Law recommends students be taught to…

  • Reveal and question underlying assumptions,
  • Figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
  • Spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
  • Weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
  • Make a point clearly and concisely
  • Take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting,
  • Argue without personalising a dispute,
  • Look at issues from the point of view of others, and
  • Question the appropriateness of, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings.

These are admirable qualities we could probably all use. And like most good advice, it is obvious and easy but I’d wager if we really adopted them well, we might just make the citizens of a shared world worthy of and for each other. And that’s probably why it hasn’t been universally applied, as it is not in the interests of the quiet authoritarians pulling the strings. Law reminds us that modern education only fulfils half its original intent – not to merely intellectualise – but also create good citizens. This just happens to be a view shared by those in favour of more authoritarian approaches; Law just disagrees on how that is achieved. And he offers a convincing case.

Law is concerned with many things, including the misunderstanding of Kant and the Enlightenment. He manages to stay just on the interesting side of argumentative pedantry but his simple, yet philosophical approach convincingly breaks down all the arguments of the authoritarians.

One problem is, of course, that authoritarians will never recognise themselves as such. Another is that they will misrepresent the liberal approach. But at Law points out ‘To say “You must judge what is right and wrong” is not to say “You must judge on a wholly shallow, materialistic, self-serving basis”.’ And yet this is the familiar argument against liberal education. Law refutes the claims that liberalism is relativism and encourages anarchy in the classroom. Indeed, how could that possibly deliver a structured approach to thinking? Law rejects authority which dictates what is to be believed, rather than instilling the means to think for oneself.

An oddity of many philosophic debates (as a visit to the Tintern Philosophy Circle (each 3rd Tuesday in the month at the Rose and Crown 7.30pm) will often testify), is that it isn’t long before the topic of Nazis turn up. And Law’s book is no exception. I guess this is because the Nazis are such a milestone in amoral conduct they off a good example of how supposedly rational beliefs become policies that can carry a whole country into mass extermination (and by, um, ‘authority’ no less).

Here Law rightly draws on Milgram’s 1950’s psychological tests which sought to understand how Nazi concentration camp guards qualified their actions by claiming ‘they were only following orders’ and – so Milgram thought – to prove that it could never happen in the USA. Instead, Milgram found that actually ‘65% of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to so by a white-coated authority-figure’. Law argues that it is only, as Kant says, through ‘the courage to use one’s own reason’ we might question such authority.

In fact, from a socialist perspective, our history is rich with those who questioned the established authority and challenged them in order to change the world for better. What is somewhat lacking here though is that which Marx set out – the means to change the status quo. At the risk of sounding like one endorses Pol Pot’s Year Zero: revolutionary action – in this case the means to ignite Enlightenment for modernity.

A liberal approach to character education won’t emerge of itself. It needs to be policy won by evidential argument, or if not grown organically by educationalists themselves. But I say what better place to start, while we wait for policy-makers to catch up, than in the home?

For his part, Law suggests some training for specialised teachers. After building such a convincing case, this solution seems rather lightweight.

In his defence, however, Law does cite cases where philosophy in schools has not only drastically improved critical thinking skills and reasoning, but there’s also evidence of side-benefits too both in general educational improvement, as well as better behaviour and attitudes, particularly on moral issues like, say, bullying.

So my major political conundrum (the myth of the rational voter) isn’t yet solved, but at least the debate as to how to positively influence change has begun with this highly recommended, mindful book. Buy it, read it and then buy a copy for the Head of your local school.


Someone offered the phrase that we see moral thought ‘through a glass darkly’ and this was certainly true of those of us listening to Prof. Billington talk on ‘Absolutism vs Relativism’ under the influence of Thwaites’ dark and silky Crafty Devil beer.

Although I agreed with his position favouring relativism over absolutism, I felt cheated by the quality of the argument. X vs Y presupposes equal weight will be given to both sides. But it wasn’t. In fact I couldn’t recognise any difference in the presentation of absolutism from authoritarianism, but there was plenty of favour for relativism through the denigration of absolutism, particular in reference to the examples cited which were all based on a fundamentalist view of religious thought.

As an atheistic agnostic I have no time for supporting such views, but it wasn’t right to characterise all absolutism with that single brush.

Moreover, I felt – as is often the case I am finding – that the binary presentation of things was in itself at fault. And here’s why.

It is my opinion that we – as civil society – intuitively need the absolute rule of law just to get by. This is why we are, on the whole, happy to consent to it. That doesn’t mean all laws are right all of the time, but they offer a framework that applies to all fairly (putting the financial aspects of the role of lawyers aside). We want to live in a world where there’s some order which prevents others from stealing from our homes or endangering our loved ones etc.

So I contest some absolutes are accepted, not entirely and not always in all circumstances, but mostly. Another example would be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You might feel they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. Perhaps, but with an ideal of what is shared as acceptable behaviour for individuals and states, then the building blocks of civil society is built on potentially immoral quick-sand. With the UDHR there’d probably be no Amnesty International and without Amnesty or Human Rights Watch more abusers might well get away with an awful lot more. Today’s moral ideals could shape tomorrow’s laws.

Of course, an absolute right might be the status quo the next one day, enshrined by law as with the suffragette moving or gay rights. These weren’t universally accepted as absolute rights and in some places still aren’t. But social and cultural advance sees the ideals of a few become the absolute rights of potentially all.

Having argued that some absolutes work well, I think ALL the rest is relative.

We can see this is many religious texts which have their commandments. These happen to coincide with many of the base ideals of what civil society should be based on – but don’t themselves mean all religous texts ought to form the abolutes themselves.

These absolutes are not absolute for all time, but they‘re also not entirely relative either. As Macke said ‘There are no objective values.’ I agree. A plurality of moral dilemmas and outcomes and circumstances (place, time, cultural heritage, education, moral intelligence and experience) all add up to one’s decision. Some of these decisions will be framed by ‘almost’ absolutes (let’s call them absolute-lite) such as the rule of law or the UDHR. But all others require that we consider the issue at hand ourselves based on our relative standing – the accumulation of our consciousness experiences.

Thinking along this line, I tried to trap Prof. Billington, asking in which camp would he place utilitarianism. Categorically he replied relativist. Regrettably we moved on to another question before I could counter whether he thought the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number was a good absolute.

Frankly, I don’t care because the answer IMO, if there is one, is that it is a bit of both – the plural.

I think it was wrong to give absolutism a reputation of purely being irrational authoritarianism, even if I believe that the vast majority of moral choices are relative. We ran out time before I could posit the thought experiment that if ‘one day we woke up and found all views on moral issues were good (not only of intent but outcome) but absolute – would he still favour relativism?’

On the face of it absolutism in its rawest form doesn’t make any sense. But absolutism-lite does. The two are different and the latter is not relativism.

‘Through a Glass Darkly’ happens also to be one of my favourite Ingmar Bergman movies. Now there’s a sentence you don’t see every day.

The next pub philosophy meet will be on November 15th (usual time 7.30pm at the Rose & Crown in Tintern). Tim Cross is offering an ‘All you can eat’ buffet of modern philosophical thought, focusing mostly on his special areas of interest (conceptual philosophy and linguistics).

Another month, another philosophy circle meet. This time it was Prof. Ray Billington on the ‘Philosophy of Ought’.

His evening of ale, anecdote and debate focused less on logic and meta-ethics and more on the moral implications of the word. He offered 3 differing definitions of ‘ought’.

Firstly, ‘ought’ as the expression of expectation based on experience (derived from probability and suitability).

Secondly there was what one ought to do in terms of conduct, that is, a qualitative instruction normally offered in one’s interest, probably with the expectation of a positive outcome. This last definitive runs into the third, with ‘ought’ being a moral obligation inherited from some authority.

The latter begs the question from where does this moral obligation arise? On what authority is ‘ought’ assigned?

As usual God came up a lot. I guess that’s omnipotence in action. But as an atheist/agnostic, I put that aside, rejecting the very idea of a supernatural moral authority as a premise worthy of pursuit. There was, however, an interesting segment on whether one could logically arise ‘ought’ out of an ‘is’. For example: Jesus IS perfect and we therefore ‘ought’ to follow his example. Why? Or, just because God is our creator does not necessarily mean we ‘ought’ to follow his bidding.

No, ought, to me and a few other Darwinians (we shall call them, heathens they shall call us) in the room saw ‘ought’ as a manufactured expression of compulsion. It is an idea of what the self feels compelled by or what we feel should compel others.

I offered the example that although we could not know, it is highly unlikely that animals have a concept of ‘ought’, even those that are comparatively complex and intelligent, such as apes.  This would therefore show that is probably only something that we exhibit out of our own creation. As highly sophisticated animals, we have created the idea of ‘ought’ but it does not mean that ‘ought’ exists, in terms of a moral obligation. I felt pretty much the same about ‘time’ last month.

I used the brain in the vat example. Dave – our brain in the vat – wakes up each morning and says ‘Blimey, I really ought to do 50 push-ups each morning.’ Here we see the idea of the compulsion, but the inability for Dave to actually achieve it. But this makes the idea of what Dave ought to do no less compelling.

Some offered that ‘ought’ requires a capability and goal. That’s fine, but it is still only the expression of a compulsion, and – like most expressions – once the context of a self among many selves is added, the expression of the desire and ability to achieve it will differ from person to person to end up so internalised in one’s own reality as to be virtually meaningless.

Ayer says this kind of ‘ought’ all comes down to personal interest. And this is where the assertion of ‘ought’ might be, we Darwinians felt, a hang-over from our compulsion to merely survive. As usual, there was a rumble of discontent amongst our number and crass remarks about Richard Dawkins’ ‘Selfish Gene’, which he himself declared dissatisfaction with (as a title) in his Introduction to Robert Axelrod’s ‘The Evolution of Co-Operation’, which I still haven’t read – I guess I really ought to…

Anyway, IMO the issue came down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Again. This is an expression of what drives man. The base needs are those required of survival: food, water, shelter etc. and as society becomes more advanced and affluent, we have the liberty of time and actualisation of self to start considering.  Historically, ‘ought’ may well have been tied up first with obligation to the group or clan, a higher need that pure self-survival, but this can still be interpreted as part of the wider survival mechanism.

Then, as man becomes more complex and starts on this thing we call civilisation we move up the needs chart to actualise abstract ideas based on our reflection of self and wider (society). Or, in social systems, the conduct inherited through the system itself.

With a nod to Ockham, this explains the misinterpreting of the compulsion quite well without having to magic-up a supernatural (or otherwise) higher authority on whose bidding we ought to follow. Don’t over-complicate things – the simplest answer is probably the most likely. If unpalatable as the Richard Dawkins’-bashers misunderstood.

My question to Ray was: ‘Who do we betray most if we ignore what we ought to do – the idea of ought or our free will?’

I never got a satisfactory answer (why would I possibly expect one from a Professor of Philosophy?) and as soon as we had thrown free will into the mix there was no discerning whether ‘ought’ fed into free will or arises in spite of it. At one point, however, someone from the floor reminded us that it was Kant who said (something like) ‘because we have a sense of ought, we have free will’. I am not sure I have enough understanding of his intensions here, but it does suggest that ‘ought’ feeds into free will and that Kant accepts ‘ought’ as an idea.

Trying to understand a moral meaning of ‘ought’ was, to me, as futile an exercise as asking ‘what is good?’ No wonder utilitarianism came into discussion at one point.  And the question of whether ought can arise from an IS, presupposes that ‘ought’ is itself a valid moral construct, which I cannot see it is. As Mark pointed out it is probably nothing more than a neurotic dilemma.

Oh, and just to be clear, I accept but am not entirely satisfied with the clumsy use of ought which can be used to express an expectation of the outcome of some test, as witnessed by some earlier evidence. But this is just a fuzzy version of IF / THEN logic. With morality being amongst the most fuzzy things in philosophy and, indeed, life – ‘ought’ of that kind belongs, IMO, in the dustbin marked ‘words surplus to requirement’.

Debate over. Now we really ought to move on to something else…

The next meet is our annual garden party, with the next regular meeting at 27th September with Prof. John Clarke talking on Bertrand Russell and Francis Bacon, both of whom have a link with Tintern (with Russell being born just up the road) and thus the talk/meet will form part of the Tintern Festival. Meetings kick off at 7.30pm and normally take place in the Rose & Crown pub, in Tintern.

Last night’s pub philosophy meeting (of the Tintern Philosophy Circle) was a talk on ‘A brief history of thought on the subject of Time’ by Prof. Bob Clarke of the National Physics Laboratory.

For the first time, I left a philosophy meet with the same opinion I had when I arrived.

And that is: time is merely a tool we have created to comprehend space.

Moreover, accuracy in measurement is no reason to believe time exists in itself – it is merely an articulation of something else; it does not mean that it is a thing of its own. What IS, are events. We measure the motion of events with something we have called time.

Events occur in space. The space exists and events occur in the space. As I offered in the meeting  – when someone mentioned sub-conscious time and the necessity of a viewer to create time –  that Tintern existed before any of us did, was there with the dinosaurs and pre-organic life. We might measure the time from those events and we can do this by digging into the ground with archaeology, but the events exists nonetheless, it didn’t need us to observe time for it to happen.

Similarly, the space Tintern takes up – albeit currently on Earth – will experience events forever, event after Tintern and the Earth is gone. (Here I allude to the premise and my opinion that space is still space, not vacuum, at sub-atomic level there is still something, even if in our language and science we measure that something as something akin to nothing).

Space is measured in  three dimensions (H x W x L) – these together can form a fourth dimension; you can do this on a scrap of paper by drawing a line for height, then a connected line for width and finally its length. Join all these together and you end up with a 4th dimension – the cube. IMO space is a bite out of an area where events take place. We didn’t have, um, time to go too much into space and time, focusing on the history of thought on time, but certainly when quantum mechanics came into being, I was starting to wish Ockham was in the room, to shout ‘time’ as a landlord does, not as a quantum mechanical physicist might.

Indeed, Bob offered us a bit of Kant which worked for me and that was that our rational understanding of the world is very limited, and often we stretch it beyond our capabilities (and reality perhaps?) and then Schrodinger’s equation in quantum mechanics appeared. The spirit of Ockham sighed with me and we took a long slurp of our Abbots Ale. But lo, along came the Wheeler-DeWitt equation to save us…

This supposition declares that the state of the universe does NOT evolve with time – time is absent (=0 instead of Schrodinger’s t at the end of his equation in quantum mechanics) from the equation; the universe never changes, as Parmenides stated a very, um, long time ago.

Great; this seems to add intellectual weight to my hunch that time is not fundamental to the universe and that, rather it is an emergent characteristic of it – something we have created to articulate a series of events. As much as there is no present (because it has gone before we’re able to place a flag on it) – it is just an articulation of the zeitgeist at best, something for our simple minds to cope with (and that works, which is fine, if untrue) – time itself is a fabrication.

As usual the questions segment started slowly. Because I agreed with what I think Bob felt was true about time not really being anything other that a handy tool for measurement, I decided to offer a question which backed up my opinion.

‘So, Bob – and I think we’re of one mind here on the topic of time as a useful means of measuring things – if we put aside that for one minute, that is, we accept that, what OTHER use is it?’

Bob’s answer wandered around measurements and sat navs for a while and trailed off to a place that seemed to acknowledge there was none. I thought this re-stated the case that it is nothing more than a means of measuring events.

Some of our number, however, were – as Bob pointed out with his remark about ‘time’ being the most commonly-written noun in the English language (with ‘year’ and ‘day’ being 3rd and 5th) – still struggling with the claim that seemed to be arising that time did not exist. Marie (I think it was) said that she saw it every morning when she looked in the mirror.

I responded that what you see is the events that make up the rush to death, not time. Time is what we measure it in (years), the events occur irrespective of the measure. Bob cited Newton and that time and space is immense and eternal and that it was God that created it (or did he say that was/is God? He lost me there as neither God nor time are concepts which exist to me). I agree that events will occur eternally and that space is endless (Buzz Lightyear’s ‘To infinity and beyond!’ comes to mind)  and that, again, it is our need to cope with that mind-bending reality which, as Kant suggest, is actually so beyond us, we create a language (in words, mathematical theory, cosmology and physics) to comprehend it. And we do so in error.

Furthermore, Bob suggested that, ironically, the more physicists knew about time, the more fuzzy and elusive it became. Which it naturally would do, if it doesn’t actually exist.  For example, his reading of the 2008 competition for the world’s leading theoretical physicists on ‘The Nature of Time’ saw a plurality of interesting possibilities, rather than a synergy of evidence and consolidation of post-Einsteinian theory.

Indeed, the most impressive opinion that Bob had all night, I thought, was when he said ‘Science (physics) needs philosophy.’ It might just give us cause to ponder the nature of the question, rather than seek purely the answer.

Ps. The next Tintern Philosophy Circle (pub philosophy) is on 19th July (always the 3rd Tuesday, except in August, when there’s a garden party) and is on ‘The meaning of ought (and on what authority do we say it and what do we mean?)’ with Prof. Ray Billington at 7.30pm. See you there.

Last night’s talk at the Tintern Pub Philosophy Circle was on the philosopher, David Hume who’s 3rd centenary of birth is celebrated this year.

Prof. Ray Billington led with a picture of Hume’s life. An atheist or at least agnostic, Ray presented Hume as a man in despair at the conclusions of his life’s work in philosophy. His scepticism leads him to an almost existential crisis: philosophy had failed to explain the nature of man.

‘There is no God. There is no such thing as a soul.’ Were phrases that Ray used to paraphrase Hume’s spiritual position, but where his forbears  – like Berkeley – believed the mind of God gave us our thoughts, the new age of doubt (science, discovery and the reformation) led to a scepticism where the truth needed to be tested from sense experience. Newton presented a testable methodology of observation and experiment which could describe the external world; Hume, having banished the role of God wanted to do the same for the inner world of human nature.

His failure to find success in his philosophical exploration of human nature was the cause of this existential crisis, a crisis of wisdom no less.

My understanding of John Clarke’s presentation has me summarising the problem as…

Reality is not ultimately knowable

Hume concluded that we cannot truly know reality, only our perception of it.

Dissatisfied, he only finally found peace of mind in the fact that the machine of nature itself enables us – as part of nature – to save ourselves from this scepticism.

The world of objects exists beyond us. Nature has endowed us with the means to accept causation in the world which cannot be truly proven. It is benign if not good. And it works as an acceptable consolation for philosophy’s failure to test reality.

Hume therefore is kind of a pre-Darwin Darwinian: nature has given us the natural instinct that the universe is regular – but philosophy can’t prove it – that is the nature of nature. And that’s something even we atheists can believe in.

There is an argument that faith teaches us to be virtuous. But this presupposes that faith is the only means capable of us acquiring virtue. I don’t think that is at all true.

But does true virtue transcend motive? Can we be virtuous without some kind of motivation, or gain?

For example, without the motivation of organized religion, would those same people be able to be as virtuous without that motivation? In fact, would it be more virtuous entirely because it is divorced of the motivation of organized faith? Could we have stopped on this discourse with Socrates and his proposition that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’?

And then, can non-sentient beings be virtuous?

Is being virtuous a unique part of the civilization of man? Perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps wild animals know not of immoral cruelty, for example, but exist in natural virtuousness. That perhaps it is civilization, in fact, which has given some men the motive and means not to be innately virtuous: we have un-learned natural virtuosity.

Of course, nature can be naturally cruel, natural selection demonstrates this well, but it does so outside the context of virtuosity. Is being virtuous a man-made construct, then? The likelihood looks compelling.

I’ve been reading the 9/11 Commission Report (which you can read for free in this PDF).

On the morning of the attacks, as you will probably have seen, President Bush was visiting an Elementary School in Florida. At 8:46am the first plane had hit the North Tower of the WTC, followed later at 9:03 by Flight UA 175 hitting the second, South Tower.

Of course, by the time the President was informed (9:05am) of the second plane it was clear this was no accident.

At 9:35am the Presidential Motorcade departed the school and not long after the President learned of the attack on the Pentagon.

At which point the President calls the Vice President stating: “Sounds like we have a minor war going on here…We’re at war…somebody’s going to pay.”

And a lot of  innocent people have been paying ever since.

This tells us a lot about the mindset of President Bush. Rather than a defensive position, his first thoughts are offensive, and thus we can see how we quickly arrive at bloody wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Meanwhile the actual instigator of the attacks – a non-state agent – remains at large: Usama Bin Laden.

One of the challenges to a moral existence – that is, to live ethically, truthfully and contentedly – is to civilise the natural brute that lies within us.

But does this mean quashing all original thought (the first thought, gut reaction) with reason?

If so, this suggests that early man was never capable of loving wisdom, just as animals are not.

This, then, puts philosophy as an unnatural phenomenon. Which is probably the basis for early belief systems, as a means of comprehending the world without reason.

But to be unnatural is not, in itself, inherently a negative thing. This begs the questions where did this ranking come from? Why does the natural tend to be considered better than the unnatural?

By extension if, having not adapted their nature – either for or against nature – are amoral monkeys actually more moral than man?

{book review}: It is easy to regard as cheats authors who justify their observations and arguments by serially quoting those of other great thinkers in their work.

Certainly, Tobias Jones’ own observations fail to compare with the likes of, for example, Mill or Milton of whom he quotes more than once. Indeed, for his part Jones remains little more than a journalistic observer, although to be fair he doesn’t set himself up as anything more even if he does promise to fully embed himself within the communities he and his fledgling family temporarily immerse. Putting aside my doubt over Jones’ own calibre as an original thinker there is, nonetheless, still some net gain to be had from his choice of quotations and concepts. What does it matter that we didn’t obtain such learning directly? Isn’t that the purpose of non-fiction: to observe remarkable things – not necessarily new things – and communicate these to us clearly within the context of a coherent theme? So, I chose to forgive Jones these initial misgivings.

Unfortunately, considering Jones the writer I was more than occasionally bored by his text. Even more so by his rather formulaic structure. Each chapter of ‘Utopian Dreams’ considers a different community and then as one progresses, quickly we see chapter upon chapter taking a familiar pattern: i) introduce a community through its idiosyncrasies, ii) delve a little into its past, its attitudes and aims, and then iii) deconstruct it through concepts like freedom, the value of work, or the very nature of what a community is or can be. Then finally, iv) move on to the next community in vain hope of addressing this new-found lacking, and in doing so regard the former community with a slight yet condescending derision.

Nonetheless the notion itself is highly compelling and fortunately each chapter doesn’t linger and nor does Jones.  For our attention we get to see and learn a little about an Italian new-age retreat which even has its own recognised currency (Damanhur); a Quaker retirement Community (Hartrigg Oaks) and its proximity to the Rowntree Trust; a monastery in the Nomadelfia and a place for social rehabilitation in Pilsdon.

Regrettably – as a secularist and socialist – I found little hope in the communities on offer inasmuch most appeared based on faith of one kind or another. Even with my respect for Quakerism and each community’s liberal attitudes towards education and communalism per se, Jones presents the case that all were founded on some form of supernatural core (and that includes the New Age). This is a disappointing but unconvincing conclusion: I simply don’t believe it to be true that a successful community needs faith at its core. It may be a characteristic of those communities Jones visits, but I don’t believe communalism as a concept and way of living has this as an absolute requirement.

Jones himself alludes to secular leanings, but I think he’s got doubts and is himself searching for a belonging of one kind or another. While he explores the role of faith to his somewhat unconvincing degree, he can’t deny his choice of communities speaks volumes in itself. At one point he even misunderstands or misrepresents the concern of Richard Dawkins on the subject of devoutly religious communities (p.203), as opposed to communities per se and that is either just too sloppy or suspiciously convenient for me.

Mr. Jones is at his best when considering existential issues like freedom. It might seem a logical place to start being such a fundamental principle for breakaway communities looking to escape the clutches of the state and big business, and as such one might expect it to be the theme of Chapter One, but actually it only appears in chapter 4 (of 6).

Freedom is the paradox of communalism. It offers freedom from the established norms of post modern society – a breakaway of the strangle-hold of modernity and social decay writ large, but at the same time communalism requires that we deny ourselves some personal freedoms in order to live amongst and with one another (to varying degrees depending on the nature and structure of the community). Indeed, it is building communities that we set out to purposely challenge, to the benefit of mutual cooperation, unfettered freedom and its modern byword: choice.

Here is Jones on this individual freedom versus community paradox: “Logically, they are opposites. Community is a place…where you take chunks out of your individuality in return for a place where you fit in. You sacrifice personality but get belonging. But a true community, they said echoing Weber, would be an iron cage. The cost of company, said everyone from the Stoics onward, is a reduction of freedom.” But if that freedom is the freedom for others to feed a shallow form of attainment through this new world of fake choices, then our current affluence is a rather depressing one.

Indeed, Jones rightly observes that creating a struggle between the two forces may itself be a fallacy; “I still thought the two could be complimentary. The trouble is that nothing is currently allowed to complement freedom. Freedom has become akin to a flag, raced up the pole to test our loyalty to it. Freedom has become one of those words which is hoisted to end all debate.” citing the US military operation entitled ‘Enduring Freedom’ as a poignantly trite example. The point is further qualified by his quoting Chesterton: “Most modern freedom is at root fear…It’s not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.”

Jones admits his work is a journal-like foray into shared communities which takes accident and reactive pondering as its guide rather than any structured approach. I’m not entirely convinced this is of benefit to the work and would even have preferred a more academic text. Indeed, I suggested to the popular philosopher and author Alain de Botton that he instead take up the challenge, recommending ‘Utopian Dreams’ as a signpost: de Botton, I’m sure, would really get underneath the rock Jones alludes to – but only de Botton would eloquently examine the grubs and shoots that really lie beneath. Alain replied saying he’d ordered the book off Amazon, so we’ll see.  Alain’s already published on work (‘The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work’) and what’s now called affluenza (‘Status Anxiety’) so the idea of communalism could offer a solution to both those anxieties.

Certainly, it is my opinion that utopian views of the world are welcome in a time lacking ideology. And what is a utopia other than an idea or a set of visualised hopes shared and brought to life through living in a certain shape of society? A statement that ‘we can do better than this – and here’s how’. Jones’s most consistent and attractive offering for a Utopian dream is, aside from those theistic allusions, to live more simply and to do so alongside one another instead of in spite of each other.

Jones – rightly in my mind – is repulsed by our post-modern consumerist society; it’s his reason’ d’être for the entire project…

‘Our society now bears all the scars of decades of failure to teach those gentle virtues of gratitude and obligation. In an ideal community, the onus for you to take responsibility for other people is borne out of a thankfulness that someone, here, has taken responsibility for you. It’s symbiotic, joyous almost, because your relationship is based on love. In contemporary Western society, however, the instinctive mood is vindictiveness born out of years of being told one is a victim. Complaint becomes knee-jerk, litigation second nature. We can be spiteful to people because we’ll probably never see them again.’

And yet this is the very world to which he returns at the end of his ‘search for a good life’. How thoroughly depressing.

Every now and again you see them. Smartly turned out, splitting off into three or four groups of two. At least one of them carries an expensive-looking brief-case. With a friendly smile they arrive at your door. Perhaps annually, perhaps twice a year – I’ve not monitored their regularity. Yet.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of those benign interruptions on our lives that occur from time to time. Like children asking for a ‘penny for the Guy’ or someone collecting for the Salvation Army, some of us welcome these interruptions, others less so. Often we dispel them without much of a thought. But perhaps we should pause for exactly that.

For my part, as a non-militant atheist, I welcome the chance to debate the issues of the day with someone of a completely different worldview to my own. My experience of a Witness visit has it that their opener tends to be concern over the world’s poor or the troubles and war we live through. As I am interested in views, I hear them out. I always remain more than polite even though I have to conclude the exchange with: ‘Thanks, but I’ve explored religious solutions and have come to the informed choice that atheism is for me.’

For many years I believed there was no God of any kind. Then, two decades later, after reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and the angrier ‘God is Not Great’ by Christopher Hitchens I found two books which supported that belief as each presented an academically-researched and vividly compelling case against religion. But that, of course, is not to say that all faith is wrong or bad. I have met good, charitable and peace-loving people who are shining examples of the best of their faiths (particularly among Muslims and Quakers). And who can overlook the great work of many faith-originated aid agencies and charities like the Fair Trade movement (Traidcraft) or the Salvation Army to name but two?

But now, on the last two visits, I have noticed children accompanying adult Witnesses.

The first time I saw a young boy of about 5 or 6 years of age alongside adult Witnesses I simply put the advent down to domestic trivialities: he was probably there because his mother was busy. But my innocence was quashed the next time the Jehovah’s descended upon our village. Now there were whole families of Witnesses, together with toddler-age children in tow. This would not necessarily be an issue, but the children seemed to be playing a distinct part in the process itself.

I suddenly realised that my response last time was compromised.

When in the presence of a minor, it is only natural to include them in the discourse and take account of them in your language (both use and misuse). I feel that the use of young children in their introductions/advances – that is, children younger than the age of reason/consent – Jehovah’s Witnesses are, firstly, compromising my response in respecting the presence of minors. For example, I feel it is not right for me to challenge the beliefs of parents in front of their children; it undermines their respect. But more important than that, one can’t help but feel that one is witnessing the exploitation of innocents.

To be clear, I believe in a parent’s right to raise their children in the manner they see best in order to produce moral citizens who play a full part in the world. And before a child has reached the age of reason and consent, as parents, we will naturally pass on our own moral framework. But to use a child in the procurement of converts to faith? Distressed, I needed to find out whether the use of minors in evangelical missions was a new phenomenon, a new directive from the Watchtower?

Personally, the level of control exercised by the Watchtower I found was shocking. Firstly, there is no way to communicate with the Watchtower directly. The only means is to book a Bible Visit in your own home. Then, on Facebook – the famous social networking site – I found most groups were closed (for invited or approved members only). Though I did find one that was open and included comments suggesting that The Watchtower issues directives that communication across all forms of open electronic mailing, such as forums, social networking sites and even e-mail open to non-Witnesses is forbidden. Such interaction is to be controlled centrally from the Watchtower itself and that Witnesses must not mix with apostates. Apostates being ex-Witnesses and JW short-hand for non-believers or even other types of Christians. Ex-Witnesses are to be shunned, even if they were friends. Family even.

On the few Facebook groups that were open, I posed the question of the use of minors. One response was: “It’s a very sad thing, but witness kids are forced to go door to door. The society sets all the rules and the witnesses follow and do whatever they are told. I am so glad I am out of that crooked organization.”

For sure, a look at support sites for ex-Witnesses demonstrated a catalogue of all types of abuse of children and teenagers within the Jehovah’s Witnesses community. But I felt that was a distraction from my immediate concern and, besides, this wasn’t the only faith to be linked with the widespread abuse of minors.

Then again, in terms of the indoctrination of minors, former chair of the American Bar Association’s Child Custody Case Committee said “Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably responsible for half of the contested custody cases involving religious issues”, thereby suggesting that Jehovah’s Witnesses are more prone to this kind of control than other faiths, at least in America. Often this takes the form of one parent becoming a Witness and then divorcing the faithless or apostate and unwilling partner, and then fighting to take or defend the children into or from the clutches of the Watchtower.

With not a single example of baptism of minors in the Bible, the Watchtower ignores the good Book (even Jesus was 30 when he was baptised) and formally enrols children into the faith with them pledging “association with God’s spirit-directed organisation“ ensuring that the child can no longer choose to leave the religion without the severe consequence of “disfellowshipping”.

Imagine shunning a child with “God’s Word commands Christians not to keep company or fellowship with a person who has been expelled from the congregation… “A simple ‘Hello’ to someone can be the first step that develops into a conversation and maybe even a friendship. Would we want to take that first step with a disfellowshiped person?” (Our Kingdom Ministry August 2002 page 3).

Even their own publication, The Awake! admits: “A lot of young people hesitate to get baptized because they fear it’s a final step that they can’t back out of. They feel that if they do something wrong, they’ll be put out of the congregation.” (Awake! March 22, 1990 page 27).

Witness children are raised in a relatively closed environment, and are often only allowed to develop relationships with other Jehovah’s Witnesses. Critical thought is normally repressed, leaving only information favourable to Jehovah’s Witnesses to be shared. They are programmed to become productive members: “In the early years, put before your children theocratic goals—regular pioneering, Bethel service or missionary work. Encourage your children to auxiliary pioneer during school vacations.” (Our Kingdom Ministry October 1983 page 2)

Yet one honest contributor to one of the Facebook groups I visited suggested that “Jehovah’s Witnesses put on a different face when confronted about their child-rearing policies. The guide, ‘Preparing for Child Custody Cases’, printed by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, coaches Witnesses what to say to conceal the extent of Witness life on the child: ‘Be careful that they {the governmental social services} don’t get the impression that they are in a demonstration at the circuit assembly, when they would show that the first things in life are service and going to the Kingdom Hall. Show hobbies, crafts, social activity, sports, and especially plans for the future. Be careful they don’t all say that they are going to be pioneers…maybe you can show an interest in art and the theatre. They must be clean, moral, honest, but with the interests that you would expect from other young people.’ (page 43)”.

He went on – “Many Witness youth resist the pressure to get baptized. The longer they wait, the more the pressure builds: ‘It is not enough simply to believe the Bible truths you have been taught, nor is it enough simply to tag along with your parents to Christian meetings. Those desiring salvation must dedicate themselves to God and do his will.” (Awake! March 22, 1990 page 26).”

Dawkins’ major preoccupation in his best-selling book ‘The God Delusion’ is the indoctrination of children born into faith families. If you like, he is concerned primarily with the corruption of innocent minds. Here we see the result on our very own doorstep.

But in today’s Britain can you imagine members of the Muslim faith coming to your door suggesting that the only thing to save you from Armageddon is the Koran? What if they were accompanied by a young Islamic boy or girl – would not the Daily Mail brigade rush to their Talk Radio or Jeremy Vine phone-ins, their Channel 5 debating/rant shows in disgust?

Apply the same comparative test with the intended reach of this pervasive faith which has the goal of worldwide ubiquity even though only 144,000 lucky Witnesses will ever be permitted into Heaven come the day of Armageddon, according to their own teachings. If we saw organised Islam providing the weird kind of sales target report, you can find the Watchtower’s 2008 review can you imagine the outcry? But here we learn 1 in every 445 people in Britain is a Jehovah’s Witness, or review the number of Baptised in that year or the amount of time spent preaching (20,641,997 hrs). This target-based evangelism coupled with the quashing of dissent on social networking sites reeks of the kind of command and control one could only rationally reconcile with a cult (see International Cultic Studies Association for some academic views on what constitutes a cult).

And, as a non-militant atheist, I find it challenging that the actions of the evangelical compels me, possibly against my better judgement, to engage militantly in the struggle for enlightenment over exactly this kind of theistic conduct.

I urge you to help me raise the profile of this issue in your local press and when you’re next visited by Witnesses. In the Forest of Dean, our local Kingdom Hall is based in Parkend and their site has just received planning permission for additional building work, presumably expansion.