Sunday, June 28, 2015

June 28: the meaning of morality

About a dozen years ago, I read a book whose title I  have long forgotten - something like "The hundred greatest people in world history". One can, of course, argue forever about what greatness is, and whether this hundred in particular was the greatest. But they all, without doubt, had qualities of greatness. And there was certainly a bias for the western world. But still- there was an undeniable feature about those chosen. Two peoples stood out as remarkably prominent, though both were only a small part of the population even of the western world - Jews and Scots.

And that's not surprising.

For the Scots, the really great names in literature, science, economics, business.....begin to appear about the early 1700s. And it had a great deal to do with a wave of Protestant growth quite different from the Protestantism of England. Unlike most of the churches of Europe of the time, what arose in Scotland was a faith that required its  followers to read The Bible, and to come to their own conclusions about it. It was a huge step away from the Anglicans and Catholics who were told what to believe, and who devoted their church time to ritual. There was no need for either literacy or discussion. So there was no need to educate the common people.

But Scottish Protestant churches required the literacy so people could read the Bible for themselves, and and  the intellectual freedom to think for themselves. Everybody had to be able to read and to think, and to discuss in public. That couldn't happen in a society in which adequate education was available only for those who could afford it. And so it was that Scotland adopted free public education, giving equal opportunity to all.

It proved to be the foundation of modern democracy. And it produced a tidal wave of writers, scholars, scientists, businessmen many, like Robert Burns, of quite humble origins. When the British conquered Quebec, it was Scots, not the English, who came to dominate the business world.. And it was those Scots who planted the seeds of public education as the basis of education for all Protestants in Quebec. (French Catholics also had public education,  but until very recently, it was designed only to produce basic skills for very low level jobs. All French who could afford it (like the Trudeaus) sent their children to private schools. That's why every premier in the history of Quebec had attended private school. (Even Levesque, though he never finished.)

Public schools have been the foundation of democracy, freedom, and social progress ever since. (Though people like those at the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies have been anxious to hand them over to big business for profit - and this has become a feature in the US which is why the US is becoming a land of the 17th century.)

As for Judaism, free and open discussion has been central from the start. (There is the story in The Bible of Jesus debating points of the Talmud and the Torah in the synagogue.) Free and open debate and discussion are powerful factors in Jewish life. Thus the encouragement for Jewish children to study, to think for themselves.  Education was important to both parents and children. I always knew, when I spoke at a synagogue, that I better have something to say. It didn't matter whether the audience agreed with it. I just knew I had better have a serious topic, and some pretty good reasoning to support it.

And that carried into daily life. Jews were prominent, often  the majority, in most social action movements I was involved in.

It wasn't like New Brunswick chruches where one can get off with a gospel hootenanny.

The result of Judaism is a people who do, on the whole, very, very well in school. In my high school teaching days, Jewish children normally dominated the top spots in the provincial high school exams. Anyone who  wants to improve our schools should kick out all the big business influences and methods, and take time to study the methods of the Scots and the Jews.

(As a sidebar to this long prologue, google Jewniverse. It's a Jewish site that's quite fascinating. It's not at all political. Sometimes it's even trivial. But it's still fascinating.)
The point of all the above is that we need a society that uses its schools not to train children like pet dogs, but encourages them (and their parents) to feel the stimulation of learning, to be free to agree or disagree. and to be encouraged to do both in public. And to give equal opportunity to all children - and that means NOT treating them all in the same way. Children from poor and some middle class backgrounds need more, not just the same as, treatment given to more fortunate children. Education is not a matter of one size fits all. Equal opportunity does not mean simply giving the same class sizes and text books to everybody .

Children need exposure to varying opinions, not protection from them. When we use history to teach patriotism, for example, all we produce is a nation of robots to be easily manipulated by the Harpers and Irving presses of this world.

Well, that took more time than I thought it would. Maybe I shouldn't have spent so much time on this; but I thought it an important background.  So - morality in our world.

Look. I was raised in the United Church of Canada. I have often led services in churches. I rarely attend churches, though. I find them to be essentially social clubs for the lonely. I find the idea of praying absurd. Is there a God? Maybe. But certainly not one who looks just like us and who wears a white robe. Was Jesus His son? And also His own father? And His own ghost? I don't even understand what all that means.

Does believing in Jesus (whatever that means) get you into heaven (whatever that means)? I have no idea.

The core of real value in Christianity - and most other religions - is not in all tales of magic and all the abstractions that you read about in The Bible and most other religious works around the world (yes, including Islam) lies in the essential rules for the survival of any society. These are the rules we call morality. One of the rules is that we must not kill other people.

But we live largely to kill other people. We are killing them in the Middle East. We go along with that largely out of a hatred and fear that has been drummed into us by billionaires who want us to kill people in the Middle East so they can make more money, and they spread the hatred of fear in the news media they own.

And we're on the edge of killing Russians  (and risking killing ourselves) because of our profound love for Ukrainians and their democracy. Come off it.

Until this started, most North Americans probably thought a Ukrainian was a kind of European banjo.

As for freedom and democracy, the western powers have led the world in destroying both. The British had the biggest empire in history, though the American empire may now be larger - it's hard to be sure because Americans never call it an empire. The British, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Americans have not only murdered millions to make a few people very rich. They have tortured on a monstrous scale - and the only person who faces punishment for it is the man who revealed that the torture was going on.

Our side and the other side are both guilty of war crimes against humanity, of greed, of slaughter.
When Hitler murdered innocent people, spread massive suffering, murdered in the name of religion, tortured, and dreamed of conquering the world, we were told he was crazy.

How is that different from what the US and its friends are doing?

Love thy neighbour? Thou shalt not covet? Please. An economic system of rule by the rich and greedy and self-centred dominates every major power in the world. (No. It's not just New Brunswick.) Our mining companies in Latin America and Africa kill and plunder and pollute to a degree worse than slavery.

The mass murder of North American native peoples and the destruction of their societies easily matches anything Hitler did. Given its smaller population, Canada takes a back seat to no-one in this category.

Thou shalt not covet? Please. Our economic system of uncontrolled capitalism (which is about to get worse) is based on coveting. Coveting and  unlimited greed and self-interest. It's the same system in China and Russia as it is in Washington and Ottawa.

There is no room for morality of any sort in such a system. (That's why my enthusiasm for the Irving Chapel with its "special music" and coffee and fellowship in the Barn is muted.)

In the midst of this hell on earth, we have churches that rarely, if ever, mention these things. Nor do they ever mention the religious hatreds roused by the billionaire owners of news media to make us want to kill and loot people of other religions.

The reality is that most religions teach very similar principles. You will find the moral codes of Christianity very similar to those of Muhammed, Confucius, Moses, Lao-Tse. And almost all countries ignore their claimed religious principles.

As nearly as I understand the words of Jesus, he would not have approved of rampant greed, mass murder, theft, brutalization of people, news media that encourage hatreds and fears, the massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, the impoverishment of hundreds of millions....duh, so how come the Faith page never discusses anything that might offend the rich and greedy and murderous?

How come the congregations do nothing but have yard sales and pancakes? I have known very few synagogues that would tolerate that.

I am not suggesting the clergy should preach about this. Indeed, I have seen no reason to believe that most of them are capable of it. But they should, as The Bible does, encourage discussion of these topics in a Christian context. And the discussion, breaking out in a whole new direction for New Brunswick, should be public and encourage freedom of thought..

I don't suggest the churches tell people what to think. I suggest they see whole of the faith, not just the parts that the Irving's of this world choose to let us see. Life is not just abstractly loving Jesus or Muhammed or Confucious while supporting the greedy and the murderous.

In church, in synagogue, in mosque, in temple, in school, people don't need to be preached to according to formula. They need to be encouraged to think, not to memorize but to develop their own understanding, to feel free to discuss what they think without looking around for the secret police.

Will they think better than the billionaires of this world?

They can scarcely think worse.

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