Wednesday, 29 February 2012

US Stupidity in Afghanistan

How unbelievably stupid can you get?

A group of US soldiers in Afghanistan, charged with guarding Taliban suspects, first took away their Korans – in case they would use them to pass secret messages to each other – and then burnt them. As if this wasn’t bad enough, they were then careless enough to let other Afghans see them doing this and spread the happy news.

Let me just see if I’ve got this straight. The US armed forces – accompanied by the armed forces of many other nations – went into Afghanistan over ten years ago to kick out the Taliban who had given hospitality and support to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida. They succeeded in doing that pretty quickly but, for reasons too complex to go into here but which had a lot to do with the fact that Dubya was more concerned with offing Saddam (something his daddy had wisely refrained from doing), finished up getting stuck there. Not a good idea, as the Soviets, the Brits, or even the ancient Greeks under Alexander the Great could have told them. Afghanistan is definitely not a country you want to get stuck in when you’re perceived as a foreign occupying power.

The Afghans don’t like any foreigners telling them what to do, and a large part of their obscure, complex tribal culture has to do with their young men learning to use guns and any other weapons available before they would be ready to shave (if, that is, they shaved, which they generally don’t). The longer the US and other foreign forces remained in the country, the more they were going to be resented and resisted. It is hard to believe that all the experts in the State Department and the Pentagon didn’t know this. Maybe they did, but just decided to ignore it. Or maybe it was just one of the things, as Rumsfeld put it, they didn’t know that they didn’t know.

At any rate, we have moved from a situation where, a decade ago, most Afghans were delighted to see the backs of the Taliban, to a situation where they are now back in a powerful position and gaining ever more support from many Afghans, who see them increasingly as potential liberators from foreign oppressors. What a wonderful example of winning the war only to lose the peace.

Ok, so Afghanistan has turned into a complete mess. To use a US military expression, SNAFU – situation normal all fucked up. In the wake of 9/11, the collective US leadership seems to have forgotten one of the major lessons of Vietnam; be careful about getting into a situation without a clear plan about how to get out of it again. This was something Daddy Bush and Colin Powell understood quite clearly when they sent their troops off to kick Saddam’s ass in Desert Storm over twenty years ago. Dubya never learned this and Powell, apparently, didn’t have the guts to make it clear to him. Anyway, the US – and all their allies – now want nothing more than to get out of there as quickly as possible. At least officially; the chances are that if they succeed in their current disengagement plans there will still be thousands of “advisors” left there, just as there are in Iraq. But that’s all right, it’s just part of the neo-liberal wave of privatisation – war can be privatised too; it passes off the nasty business to mercenaries, who aren’t subject to the same degree of public control and scrutiny as national armed forces, where influential private companies (like Academi, the Company Formerly Known as Blackwater) can earn lots of money, and where military veterans with diverse reasons for not wanting to return to civilian life can find well-paid work.

But even getting out officially isn’t easy. I believe that the US and its allies don’t really give a tinker’s curse about Afghanistan; as far as they are concerned, if the Afghans are intent on living in a barbaric medieval theocracy, where women are treated as chattels, those who don’t share the faith of the rulers live in fear of death, and there’re more or less continual low-level wars between various tribes, then they’re welcome to do so. Admittedly, there is the poppy problem – Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of non-pharmaceutical grade opiates (92% in 2007) and also, incidentally, the world’s largest producer of hashish – but, despite all the hype about the so-called War on Drugs, I have a feeling that (for all sorts of reasons, many sordid, which I won’t go into here) the US and most other countries can live with that. No, the real problems are the two 500 pound gorillas next door, Iran to the west and, especially, Pakistan to the east.

In the ordinary course of events, Iran would be the easier one. In terms of sympathy, the US and the west have little to lose there anyway. But, leaving aside the large number of people within Iran (many of whom are devout Muslims) who might just have been persuaded that the west could offer them moral support and an alternative model for organising their country, the last thing anyone could want right now is more propaganda fodder for Ahmadinejad and the Islamicist mullahs pulling his strings. Israel and Iran are playing a dangerous game of nuclear chicken at the moment, with vast possibilities of dire consequences and anything which adds fuel to that particular mix, you would think, would be something anyone sane would want to avoid at all costs. Maybe they forgot to tell that to the US soldiers who decided to do some book-burning, and their superior officers who were ignorant enough to allow the situation to develop where they could even consider the idea.

Pakistan is potentially an even bigger problem. While it is still officially seen as the West’s major ally in the area, it is hopelessly corrupt, increasingly unstable, and large areas of its territories bordering on Afghanistan seem to be factually under the control of the Taliban or groups sympathetic to them. After all, that’s where they finally got Bin Laden, in Abottabad in the province of Waziristan. An increasingly likely return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan might just push Pakistan over the edge into chaos, civil war and an ultimate Islamicist takeover there. It wouldn’t take much pushing. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. It’s an open question as to how India, also a nuclear power, would (understandably) react to such a course of events.

The blatant ignorance which gave rise to this Koran-burning incident is simply mind-boggling. Apart from damaging any claim to some kind of moral high ground which the US might like to appeal to in this whole situation – a claim which actually had some justification in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 but which has been steadily losing credibility ever since – it is abysmally stupid from a practical strategic point of view. If the US wants to ensure any kind of stability in the country and the region after the troops are officially pulled out, the struggle for the hearts and minds of as many Afghans as possible is more vital now than ever.

It makes me wonder about the mind-set prevalent within the US Armed Forces, when any trained soldiers would not be aware of the consequences of such an action. No matter what strength of suspicion about the level of involvement of the detainees with the Taliban, the burning of Korans is a gratuitous act of insane provocation which can only suggest that those responsible are seriously dehumanised. They are not the actions of troops who are fighting to defend the ideals of the American republic throughout the world, but rather of arrogant, imperial occupiers, who could best be compared to the Roman legionaries who played dice at the foot of the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, whom most of them regard as their Saviour and God.

NATO has apologised, Obama has apologised, but it’s not doing all that much good. Perhaps because the incident is not an isolated one. Only a few days earlier, pictures were released of US troops apparently urinating on the bodies of dead opponents. Not to mention all the “collateral damage,” particularly the various killings of innocent children since the ISAF forces arrived in Afghanistan over ten years ago. And then, of course, there was that highly publicised Koran burning by that mad pastor in Florida last year, though at least that one can’t be blamed on the military.

One of the frightening aspects of all this is that it doesn’t even seem to be creating much of a stir in the US, more occupied as it is with Whitney Houston, the Oscars and the ghastly, unreal comedy of the Republican presidential nomination campaign. It would offer some kind of hope if there were any real signals of some sort of public feelings of shame at the actions of its soldiers. But why should the Roman public be concerned about the doings of its legionaries in a remote country, mostly populated by religious fanatics; Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots – or raghead Salafists, Shi’ites and Talibans? Particularly when there are more interesting bread and circus issues at home.

Pictures retrieved from: 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Nineties - A Golden Age?

The course of human affairs is constant, chaotic and – initially at least – without structure. Only as events recede into the past do we start to identify patterns, to see stories with beginnings, middles and endings, to impose structure and meaning on the raw mass of events which are continually occurring. And even these structures are continually changing; both as stories continue to develop and be told, and as our particular concerns and preoccupations colour the way we create and recreate the structures of meaning we call history.

There is a general historical convention that around thirty years should have elapsed before historians apply themselves to material to “write” history. As far as I can ascertain, this convention (which I encountered when I was studying history) has much to do with the so-called Thirty Year Rule, which legally stipulates in Great Britain, Ireland and Australia, that cabinet records are generally kept confidential for thirty years before being made available to scholars and the general public. But we live in a world where the rate of change has become ever faster, and the amount of information available ever greater, and so – in many cases – there seems to be an increasing willingness to compress this period.

Recently, I have increasingly come across articles on-line which deal with The 90s. It has long been a convention to try to characterise history according to the completely arbitrary framework of the decimal divisions of our conventional recording of time; and decades which seemed to be particularly noteworthy (as decades) have even picked up special sobriquets, be they the Roaring 20s or the Swinging 60s. Still, I will admit to a certain feeling of unease when I see people dealing with the last decade of the past century as a rounded-off period of history. This feeling is a purely subjective one and has, I think, largely to do with the realisation that I am getting older and that periods which I lived through as an adult and which (to me) still seem very recent are, for those a couple of years (or decades) younger than me, as remote as the 60s of my childhood are for me. No sooner have I been forced to accept that, for the young people of today, the 80s are so incredibly long ago – I remember a comment my daughter (disparagingly) made a few years ago watching some film or other, “My God, that’s so eighties!” – now I am expected to do the same with the 90s.

Yet, as a specific period in history, “the 90s” can actually be pretty accurately defined as a particular historical period with a clear beginning and an even clearer ending, even if these are placed a little outside the chronological decade. They began on November 9, 1989, with the Fall of the Berlin Wall and ended on September 11, 2001, with the Fall of the Twin Towers. It was a decade of optimism, of feel-good, of the peace dividend, and the end of the bi-polar conflict which had had the world quaking under the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction since of the end of WWII.

It was, for my generation, a decade with loads of “the future is now” experiences. I remember Bob Dylan commenting on Bill Clinton’s election with some bemusement that he was now older than the president and, indeed, he went along to play “Chimes of Freedom” at Clinton’s inauguration – along with Fleetwood Mac belting out “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow at the inaugural ball. Come to think of it, Michael Jackson was there too and, hell, Clinton played saxophone for Chrissakes. A few years later, Tony Blair was elected UK prime minister – and he admitted to having played electric guitar in a garage band.

All of these 90s feelings came back to me forcibly  recently when I heard of the death of Whitney Houston. Though her career began in the eighties, it was the film, The Bodyguard, which made her fame undying worldwide, particularly with the song “I Will Always Love You.” And thinking of that film brought me to Kevin Costner, another man who made it big in the nineties. And thinking of Kevin Costner brought me to his version of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). The film is overacted and relies in many places on a strong dose of melodramatics but it also has a lightness, almost na├»ve whimsicalness about it, a deep optimism that everything will work out in the end (which it does, with Sean Connery turning up as Richard Lionheart to bless Robin’s marriage to Marion), which is quintessentially nineties. The film also features a show-stealing performance by Alan Rickman as the wonderfully evil Sheriff of Nottingham, who gets the best lines of the movie

“Just a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it? That's it, then! Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!”

The essential optimism of the 90s, I believe, was a consequence of the collapse of Soviet dominated communism at the end of the 80s. Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, it is easy to forget just how unbelievable this was – and how sudden. In October 1986, the agreement in principle between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik over the reduction of intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe was regarded with amazement by the world; three years later the Berlin Wall fell, a year after that Germany was reunited, and a year later the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The shadow of the bomb – a continuous reminder of the complete precariousness of human existence on the planet for forty years – disappeared. Truly, the horse had learned to sing, and the song was American. Operation Desert Storm continued the theme and showed that the US could be the global policeman, impressively kicking Iraqi ass and taking names. Moves towards greater European union took place, with the European Community renaming itself Union, welcoming Austria, Sweden and Finland as new members, and making the final preparations for the introduction of a common currency.

Windows 3.0
The digital revolution was gathering speed. While PCs (and Macs) had already been spreading throughout the 80s, in the 90s they finally became a fixture in the majority of the households in the developed world. The internet exploded and by the end of the decade, most of us had mobile phones. The DVD arrived and began to kill VHS. Whereas at the beginning of the decade using a PC was a complicated nerdish business, involving knowing your way around the frustrating vagaries of DOS or cursing a frequently crashing Windows 3.0, by the time Bin Laden’s maniacs were crashing the hijacked planes into the World Trade Center Windows XP had just come on the market.

Of course, whether you experienced the 90s as a Golden Age or not is very much determined by who you were and where you lived. While, for much of the world, things seemed much better in 1995 than they had in 1985, there were gruesome exceptions – Yugoslavia, for example, or Rwanda. And there were those who famously didn’t survive the decade, from Kurt Cobain to Princess Diana.

The Golden Age was, at any rate, doomed. Although the transition to the new millennium went smoothly and the Y2K panic proved unwarranted, the party was coming to an end. In 2000 the Dot-Com Bubble burst and with 9/11 everything changed. Openness, optimism and feel-good were suddenly, catastrophically replaced with defensiveness, paranoia and the War on Terror. We are still living with the consequences.

Pictures retrieved from:

Sunday, 12 February 2012


A fiction

As the morphine flowed into his bloodstream, the overwhelming supremacy of the pain radiating from the hard, grasping knot in his gut receded. It wasn’t that it had disappeared; at this stage of the cancer’s progress, where nearly all his body’s natural defences had been overwhelmed, that was too much to hope for. The general staff of doctors, their radiological battles lost and chemotherapeutic campaigns routed, had abandoned the fight, leaving the opiates to fight the last hopeless battles before his body finally raised the white flag of systemic surrender. But the pain retreated, becoming just one component of the reality which could be left behind in the distance as the morphine carried him away into dreams and memories …

The sun balanced momentarily on the Atlantic horizon, a great orange balloon on the slate blue-grey of the ocean. A slight breeze rustled the hardy grass on the dunes, producing a whispering silver sound. The whispering was just part of a greater stillness, as were the continuous rising and falling hiss of the gentle waves on the beach, the shrill cry of a seagull, and the barking of a dog somewhere in the distance. It was growing a little cooler, that in itself a relief after the hot summer day. He watched the sun sinking below the sea, bleeding orange and yellow into the sky, etching a ruddy path from its going across the sea. He felt very peaceful.

Later, when the sun was gone and the colours of the day had withdrawn into the growing greyness of the twilight, he made his way back across the dunes to the tents and the others. Eddie had lit a small fire and he and the girls sat before it, talking. Dark Side of the Moon was sounding from Joan’s cassette player.

“… Long you live and high you fly
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry
And all you touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be …”

He sat down beside Ann and they kissed. He could smell and taste wine on her mouth and she handed him the big bottle of Valpolicella the others had been passing around. He took a swig of the wine, relishing the full fruity taste and the tingle of alcohol.

Eddie finished building a joint and lit up. Joan was talking about the music.

“Have you ever really listened to the talking bits on that record?”

“‘And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do,’ that’s one of the things that’s said. They recorded all sorts of people who just happened to be around in the studio at the time. Paul McCartney was one of them.”

Eddie laughed. “Trust you, David, you’re a mine of useless information!”

David grinned. “Only about Pink Floyd …”

Ann grasped his shoulder. He turned to look in her eyes.

“Are you frightened of dying, David? I mean, what if you knew you were going to die in, say, an hour’s time? No way to avoid it. Would you be scared?”

He pulled deeply on the joint, drawing the sweet, acrid grass smoke deep into his lungs, holding it in, exhaling slowly. His feeling of relaxation, contentment, downright mellowness grew. Ann’s green eyes held him, the fire flickering in them, demanding an answer. He considered for a few moments.

“No, I don’t think I’d be afraid. I could go right now. I’ve had the best of what life can give me. It doesn’t get any better than this – than it is now. And that’s the best time to die, isn’t it?”

“Quit when you’re ahead, eh?” Eddie, as always, inclined to be quick with a trite remark.

Once more David took his time to answer, his gaze still fixed on Ann’s.

“Yes. No. I mean … look … we’re all young, and there’re loads of things we haven’t done and lots of wonderful things that we’re going to experience in life. But a lot of bad stuff too. It’s just, right now everything is about as perfect as I can imagine it could be.”

The conversation died and they sat companionably, watching the last of the day fade as a huge orange moon rose in the eastern sky. David felt the warmth of Ann beside him and his feeling of relaxed, unquestioned perfection grew. Idly, effortlessly, his mind held two paradoxical thoughts; the wish that this moment could last forever and, at the same time, the feeling that he could now, in this moment, peacefully relinquish his life. A phrase from Keats came floating up, “to cease upon the midnight with no pain …”

“Does he know I’m here?”

The voice was familiar, trusted, even if it came from far away reality through morphine-soaked cotton wool. It was that of Patricia, his daughter.

“It’s hard to say,” came the nurse’s reply. “He’s just had an infusion of morphine, so he may be simply out of it at the moment. But, I think, at some level he will register your presence. Take his hand, talk to him quietly. People sense things at all sorts of levels.”

He tried to open his eyes, look at his daughter. Too much effort. He felt her bend over him, kissing his cheek. She took his hand.

“Hello, Dad.” Her voice was choked; he could hear the barely suppressed tears. He wanted to tell her not to cry, that everything was all right. But then the thought faded, borne away into the analgesic ocean. Reality was ever more distant. A small part of him felt faintly that he perhaps ought to be concerned about this, but he was too detached to follow that idea. What remained was the touch of his daughter’s hand holding his, caressing it. In the background, her voice. She was talking but it was too strenuous to listen to the sense of what she was saying. The awareness of her presence was enough.

Once more he drifted off into memory …

The wind whipped rain against the windows, forming thin lines of pearling drops on the panes. In the hospital bed his wife slept, exhausted after the long and difficult birth. David sat beside the bed, holding his newborn daughter. He looked down at her, nestled in the crook of his left arm. So small. So fragile. So perfect. Patricia, he thought wonderingly, amazed. My daughter. My life will never be the same again.

For some reason he remembered that evening at the coast, six years before, with Ann and Eddie and Joan, and what he had felt about dying. That’s all different now, he realised. I was so young, I hadn’t a clue of what I was talking about. Dying was out of the question now; this little miracle bundle he was holding in his arm had changed all that. She needed him, was completely dependent on him and, though he was awed at the responsibility, he accepted it readily, joyously. I’ll always be there for you, he thought, looking at his baby daughter, for as long as you need me. Have you taken away my freedom? Yes, but I give it willingly – it’s a trade well worth making. He took her hand and examined it. So tiny, yet perfectly formed. Gently he unfolded her fist, marvelling at her fingers, astounded how small they were compared with his. The idea that she would grow, would one day be an adult, was almost impossible to believe. But now, he promised, I’m going to be there for you, care for you, love you, give you everything you need …

Reality returned, slowly. Once more he was aware of where he was … and of his situation. Colonic cancer, diagnosed too late, was killing him. He was in hospital. He knew he would not leave alive. He felt curiously detached from it all. Doped, he supposed. There was no pain now. He could feel Patricia’s hand, still holding his. Once more we hold hands in a hospital, as we did twenty seven years ago, the evening you arrived in the world. He would have liked to tell her this, but speech was too much effort. Have I kept my promise, have I loved you, lived for you? He realised that he had. She was a grown woman now, standing on her own feet, living her life for herself. Certainly she will mourn me, he thought, she will miss me, but she no longer needs me.

It was difficult to remain lucid, even for himself, without movement, without communication. He felt it was important, just for a little while more. What was that thought? Dying. Yes. He could die now. The spoken lines on the Pink Floyd record, the ones they had discussed on that magical ocean evening over thirty years earlier, came into his mind once more. And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do. The Great Gig in the Sky, Clare Terry’s voice soaring. Eddie always claimed that the song was about orgasm but, even then, David had known better. It was about dying. He was sure now. “If you can hear this whispering you are dying.”

He could hear the whispering getting louder, becoming all there was. Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it – you’ve got to go sometime.

Gathering the last of his strength, he focussed on his daughter’s hand holding his own. This was all there was now. He increased the pressure, spanning his muscles, giving her hand a light squeeze in farewell.

And then he went. 

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Eternal Question of God

“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

It is a question which won’t leave me alone, like a scab which keeps on itching and demanding that I scratch it. In the ordinary course of rationality, it should be a door I closed many years ago – at the end of a long process, I admitted to myself that I did not believe in God and this admission was, at the same time, honest, difficult, and liberating. So why should I find myself continually coming back to it?

My arrival at non-belief was the end of a long journey, one which had at least as much to do with the unfolding of my personal story as it had with the arrival at the conclusion of a rational discussion. That rational discussion was central; I am a person for whom the application of intellect and understanding to questions has always been of primary importance – I’m a head-type rather than a belly-type. It was my head, primarily, that had led me – a believing Catholic – to join the Dominican Order in my youth; the conviction that, if the Christian message was true, then there could be nothing more important than to dedicate my life completely to that truth.

In the nine years I spent in the Order, I studied history, philosophy and theology and, the more I studied these subjects, the more problems I developed intellectually with mainstream Catholic and Christian thinking. But, for one with growing doubts, a theology study can be useful, for it provides one with the intellectual framework and conceptual possibilities to redefine that which one professes as faith (within a particular tradition) so that it continues to be intellectually acceptable. The 70s and the 80s (when I was going through this process) was a particularly good time for such exercises – there was a tendency towards openness, intellectual experiment, testing the borders within the Catholic Church, the consequences of the opening of the windows with the Second Vatican Council, initiated by Pope John XXIII. For the survival of the faith of most intelligent, reasonable people, such an openness was vital. Can you really accept that the world was created in seven days, six thousand years ago and that Adam and Eve, our ultimate ancestors, fucked everything up by eating an apple? You don’t have to; these kinds of stories were the way pre-scientific societies with very different perception of the world explained things. The central message is that God is responsible for the “world,” his creation, loves it, cares for it, has a specific plan and goal for it and humanity has developed trouble in its co-operation with the achievement of this goal. There was a lot of talk of salvation history as opposed to literal, “real” history.

A useful – and indeed necessary – way of thinking for intelligent believers. It allows you to make use of much wider categories of talking about truth; symbolism, metaphor, deeper meaning, etc. It permits the use of (more or less) scientific methodology with reference to faith matters – archaeology, textual criticism, hermeneutics, for example. The question arises, however, about how far you can take this mind-set. What about the “virgin birth” of Jesus – does this really mean that Jesus didn’t (couldn’t) have a human, biological father? Are the depictions of the miracles of Jesus in the scriptures to be taken as literal descriptions of what really happened? And what does it really mean to speak of the “resurrection” of Jesus; is this some kind of proto-zombie Dawn of the Dead story or has it more to do with the communal realisation among Jesus’ followers that the man and his message – in some powerful sense – lives on?

There are hundreds of such questions which can be asked and discussed, and they map out the territories in which intelligent, thinking, questioning believers work out and define their understanding and expression of their faith. The alternative is to become a literal, unquestioning fundamentalist, praising Jesus and waiting for the rapture.

Such an approach brings other problems with it though. Where do you set the boundaries? In Catholicism these are officially set by tradition, enshrined in the “official” teaching of the Church, residing ultimately in the Councils of the Church, the bishops, and the pope – known as the Magisterium. However, the authority of this Magisterium, as defined by itself, is extremely extensive and generally very stringent and, it can be argued, implicitly not accepted in this form by the majority of Catholics and quite a large component of theologians, priests and people deeply engaged in the Church. It certainly wasn’t accepted in this form by me, during my time as a “professional” Catholic.

One well known example makes this clear. The official teaching on birth control is clear and has been pretty consistently propagated by almost every official incidence of the Magisterium ever since Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. Basically, it teaches that the use of artificial contraception – the pill and condoms in particular – is wrong. Period. Millions of Catholics – and tens of thousands of their pastors – have simply ignored this for over forty years.

I would like to be able to claim that my break with the Catholic Church came as a result of the development of my thinking with regard to Catholic doctrine and my own intellectual journey to a stage where I finally reached the conclusion that my rational convictions had reached the point at which I could no longer reconcile my position with that of the Catholic Church in a number of fundamental areas and thus felt myself forced to formally sever my connections with that organisation. It’s not true. Rather, in common with not a few others, I fell in love, found that it was impossible for me to continue living according to the Catholic requirement of priestly celibacy (even if interpreted in a very “liberal” fashion, as a prohibition of a deeper relationship with another person, expressed sexually, rather than a complete blanket prohibition of any kind of sexual activity), and just quit.

In the end, a decision based on the heart and not on the head.

* * *

Fast forward, fourteen years later. During this time, my religious faith, my obsession with God, has receded somewhat; I’ve been too busy dealing with more practical aspects of life. I had formally converted to the Lutheran-Reformed denomination of Christianity, the mainstream variety of Protestantism in the region of Germany in which I live, but had never really become seriously involved in the life of that church. To be honest, part of my motivation to this step was purely practical; I had trained as a geriatric nurse, and around three quarters of the institutions involved in this work in Germany were church-run – I had a family to take care of and a career to get going.

Things weren’t going well; my marriage had broken down, work was going badly and I was coming to the realisation that my long-time, deep relationship with alcohol had also become completely destructive (for me, the alcohol would certainly survive). After a lot of suffering, I finally put my hands up and took my first shaky steps down the road generally characterised by regularly meeting others with the same problem in a group and saying, “I’m Francis and I’m an alcoholic.”

It’s a stage of your life – if you’re unfortunate enough to finish up there – where you really hit bottom. In this situation, there’s a strong tradition of throwing yourself into God’s hands; admitting that you don’t have the power to cure yourself and that you need help from a higher power. The first three of the famous Twelve Steps formulated by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous are as follows:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Fortunately, I was desperate enough at that stage to try anything – fortunately, I say, because I am convinced that the only way to recovery is the absolute admission that you are incapable of dealing with this problem on your own and need help. If someone had told me then that planting cabbages upside-down in the garden and then dancing around them naked waving a feather-rattle would help, I’d have been prepared to try that too.

But in another sense I was also fortunate because I found a self-help group (and, believe me, if you’re trying to kick an alcohol addiction, a self-help group is almost essential to survive those first few “dry” years), which, although it took a lot from the AAs, was consciously non-religious and non-theistic. I describe this as fortunate, because there was one aspect of the AA concept which definitely didn’t apply to me – the “Higher Power” thing.

It is the classic approach to that rock-bottom phase of alcohol addiction that when you find yourself in that empty, desolate wasteland of the realisation of what alcohol has done to you, where you look around that inner desert and see only the various parts of your life and soul that you have wrecked and poisoned under the influence of alcohol, you finally cry out to that “Higher Power” and find yourself, in some sense, supported, carried, borne up by It.

In the words of Psalm 130 (De Profundis), “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord, hear my voice.” In my desperation I called out to the God, my obsession with whom had determined so much of what had happened in my life and, I like to believe, my call was honest and sincere. And the answer I received was … Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I felt alone; the God to whom I had called in honest despair was supremely absent.

The strange thing was the result of the realisation that God was not there for me, that the Loving Father in whom I thought I believed was not giving me his grace, his comfort, his support – it was a feeling of deep relief, of liberation. Much of the conflict, the intellectual, moral and emotional struggles which had influenced my life so deeply, fell away in that moment. I felt like an astronomer at the end of the 16th century, driven half mad by the complicated mathematics involved in predicting the movements of the planets according to a geocentric model, first encountering Copernicus’ heliocentrism. Following this deeply subjective experience, I was able to revisit all the intellectual discussions and positions I had taken up to now and apply my new, improved, personalised model of Occam’s razor. I accepted that, as I did not believe in either the divinity or resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, I could no longer call myself a Christian. Moving on from that, I realised that I did not find the rational arguments for the traditional theistic arguments for a God personally concerned for and involved in the universe he/she had putatively created intellectually convincing. I spent a while longer in a kind of minimalist “watchmaker deism, before realising that – for me – the various arguments pointing out the flaws in this analogy (and other formulations of the teleological argument for God’s existence) made sense.

And so, I realised that, for all practical purposes, I had become an atheist.

* * *

This essay has become more personal (and lengthy J) than I had envisaged when I began writing it: That the question of “God” still fascinates me has, I think, much to do with my own personal history – and this is how it should be. For we are formed in our deepest attitudes, beliefs and intellectual positions by much more than just the rational part of our selves. In the end, it is our whole experience and history which make us what we are and, much as we often like to deny it, all the various aspects of our personality – including our “rationality” – are not hermetically sealed off from each other but are constantly dialoguing with and influencing each other.

It is this realisation which makes so many of the arguments between “believers” and “atheists” (and you can find a plethora of them on the web) so unsatisfying. Ostensibly rational, in fact nearly all of the protagonists have no real interest in seriously listening to what their opponents are saying, which is why one of the most common debating fallacies trotted out by both sides is that of the strawman. Proponents of the New Atheism (particularly Richard Dawkins) are just as guilty of resorting to this position as their opponents, who regularly resort to describing atheists as “immoral” and “spiritually impoverished” – though I will readily admit that the tone taken by believers with (dis)respect to atheists can frequently be seen as extreme provocation of the latter. And if you have trouble believing this, then I recommend that you just tune in to the current fight for the Republican presidential nomination in the USA, where, apparently, for a large proportion of Americans, atheists are in the same category as rapists.

At the beginning of this post, I placed Nietzsche’s famous “God is dead” quotation, intentionally extending it beyond its first three words so as to show something more of what the author was trying to say. The “killing” of God is not an easy option; it is a challenge to find grounds for order, morality, beauty and transcendence without short-cutting to a “Heavenly Father” (whose existence, purpose and will – in the Christian iteration at any rate – are ultimately more a matter of faith than reason). And it is a challenge to which most atheist thinkers rise magnificently.

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