Richard Dawkins, Irrationality, Goedel’s Ontological Proof and Why Religions are bad, but Religion is Not

A Caveat

The last section (concerning Goedel and modal logic) of this blog is a lot to process, and took me a while to sufficiently understand and reduce to a simpler form in my mind when I first learned of it many years ago. I bring it up – and everything else that will be delineated below not to try and prove that a God exists, or to persuade non-believers to my way of thinking – I am not religious or a follower of a Christian denomination so it is not in my interest to proselytise. I am also not writing in an attempt to refute the beliefs of atheists like Dawkins or suggest that atheism has no basis or even that they are wrong to dispute the existence of a God. My piece is a reaction against the haughtiness of men and women like Dawkins, who believe they are on a higher intellectual plain, that they are privy to the secrets of the Universe simply because they believe something different, something which recognises only the physical as a basis for reasoning – which in itself is somewhat unscientific. As far as I am aware we do not know definitively whether a higher power exists or not, and likely never will, but it will always be no less fun to deliberate.

And So It Goes

“Richard Dawkins is such an idiot”

A refrain that some who know me are used to hearing me spontaneously break out into when there is a lull in the conversation. I don’t say it to antagonise it is just that when I am left to my own thoughts even for a moment, I am reminded of the fact. The man can be as belligerent, dogmatic and insular as the religionists he berates and ridicules. Like most atheists, he is unaware that the liberal frame of mind he has adopted was beget by the values and traditions of Judeo-Christian faiths, while at the same time he is negligent of the fact that his liberal rationalism is dependent on an article of faith, especially where making sense of the world and deciphering its meaning is concerned. But most of all he is like most atheists he is selective in his scrutinising of religion – disregarding many of the examples of the positive functions and deeds of religion through the centuries – which is why he has constructed a false enemy of evil (religion), to be defeated by the unquestionable force of good (science and rational thinking). But there are two errors in his dichotomy. Firstly, his venom is directed at the wrong opponents; he castigates ideas, abstractions, metaphors, myriad conceptions of how society should conduct itself. Here we find the source of the problem, Dawkins – as a man of science – reads the Bible and other religious texts in a completely literal manner, like the religious fundamentalists and jihadists who terrorise populations all over the globe.

The problem is one of hermeneutics, religion is not the enemy: it is religious leaders, extremist zealots who, like Dawkins, take what they want from Scripture, only in their case it is misappropriated in the name of power and self-interest rather than to glorify God/Allah and carry out His will. Dawkins conflates religious fundamentalists with religion proper, and has his cross hairs set on the latter. The Bible needs to be taken for what it truly is: an epic poem of symbollism and fables. In the case of a large portion of the New Testament it is a furtive diatribe directed against Rome for its decadence and persecution of Christians. Depending on the version, translation or font size used by a publisher, the Bible can be over 1300 pages in length. Most of the text extols the virtues of love, fraternity, devotion, temperance, courage, austerity, altruism. But this is all negated because some choose to focus on isolated verses and passages that demonstrate intolerance of certain behaviour and choices. It’s such an insular and biased way to appraise a written document – especially by a scientist like Dawkins.

How well do you know your Bible?

Although I am more concerned with the God debate rather than religion and religious texts, the following is included in this blog to convey the specious reasoning employed by some atheists, and their superficial and selective reading of the Bible in order to decry religion and what it supposedly ‘teaches’, thus servicing their agenda. Assessing how homosexuality is treated in the Bible is just one way to accomplish this. There are just seven mentions of homosexuality throughout the Bible (four are non-specific). In the New Testament, Jesus makes no mention of homosexuality. Because of the nature of Scripture and the cultural issues that are central to a true interpretation, only a scholar of theology, Hebrew and Ancient Greek can possibly arrive at anything resembling a correct exegesis of Biblical texts. The Bible addresses sexual matters in euphemistic and vague terms, and this is compounded by the lack of understanding of how the people of the time used and understood those terms. There is also a human element at work here. The religious texts were written, gathered and compiled by ordinary people. It is reasonable to believe that individual opinions on such matters, like homosexuality, could have influenced how the supposed ‘Word of God’ was written. The progenitors of the Bible were also at the mercy of linguistic restrictions and styles of the era, not realising that the language they chose to use to illuminate a parable or moral message would have hermeneutical ramifications. Now, even when one takes these considerations on board it is hard to argue, when read in a literal manner, that the verse: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination“. (Leviticus 18:22) is hazy, and saying anything other than homosexuality is a mortal sin. However, this is one line secreted in over 1300 pages; the Bible does not make the denunciation of homosexual acts a priority in its voluminous body, so why should atheists exaggerate its importance in order to denigrate religion? Well we owe the preponderance of prohibition of homosexuality in Catholic Church doctrine to unscrupulous religious leaders and their perverse interpretations – which were conditioned by the context of the temporal times among other things – who placed such an incongruous emphasis on the matter when looked at against the evidence of the content of the Bible itself.

‘Death of the Author’

The traditional interpretation of Bible teachings, by high religious leaders and puritanical scholars, is that homosexual acts are abominable sins. In recent years, this interpretation has been challenged: “It is often pointed out that there was no concept of a loving, consensual same-sex relationship in Biblical times. Neither was there an awareness of an innate sexual preference.  Homosexual acts were viewed as a violation of the ‘holiness code’ of Leviticus which separated the Israelites from the conduct of the pagan peoples of the world”. (Achtemeier, et al. & H. Marshall, et al.) So are consensual homosexual acts violations of Biblical teachings, or did the Bible passages apply to “homosexual acts involving idolatry, rape, prostitution or pederasty?” Consensual homosexual acts are not specifically dealt with in the Bible, but it has been assumed that they were condemned under the more general prohibition against ‘sexual immorality’ (inc. adultery), but the Bible again does not give an explicit list of what is immoral. So the question is left open. The Catholic Church’s odd preoccupiation with homosexuality and gay marriage – as set out by the arbitrary religious leadership – becomes all the more strange when one realise that no mention of ‘sexual immorality’ (except for adultery) is made in the Ten Commandments. Therefore one can, at best, arrive at the conclusion that the Bible’s mere seven verses on homosexual acts, refer to homosexuality as a minor sin. There is also the argument of the context of the time, which is too complex to do it an admirable service in the scope of this blog entry.

The Role of Socialisation and Personal Attitude

The fact is our attitudes to these questions – and other controversial matters addressed in the Bible – are shaped by personal opinions, which is why verses in religious texts that appear to preach intolerance and hate should be treated with scepticism, especially when we consider the human element in the creation of these works and that these passages constitute just single bricks in an enormous edifice. We don’t discredit the entire philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche because of his insanity in his later years, or because Hitler misappropriated aspects of his thought (much like religious leaders and fundamentalists do with the Scriptures) and used it for evil. We don’t deny Mark Twain’s genius just because he made prolific use of the ‘N word’ in his novels and stories. We instead acknowledge the context of his time and other variables to explain its inclusion. We do not often attempt to reach that kind of contextual understanding with regard to religion.  The evil, bellicose, selfish, egomaniacal religious leaders of our post have blurred the boundaries between religion, religions and religious authorities. Like any other piece of literature the Bible is open to many different interpretations. In fact even moreso given its age, language, translations, employment of linguistic devices etc. It transcends several societal and cultural epochs; it is a book, like all religious materials, that should not be understood in a purely literal sense. I do not adhere to any organised religion, and one big reason, of many, is the heterogeneity that is innate in the text. So many disparate and conflicting views have come from its reading that no single Christian denomination can claim ownership over it, or profess to interpret it correctly. Unfortunately there are, and have always been, rewards for those who, through cunning, coercion and manipulation, can convincingly lay claim to a true understanding of the ‘Word of God’.

The Enemy Without

It is these men, that I mention above, who Dawkins should shake his fist at. Religion is not the evil that oppresses minorities, non-believers or ‘sexual deviants’. All one has to do is take a moment and one is reminded of examples in recent history that show just the reverse to be true. Tens of thousands more young Jewish children would have been murdered during the Holocaust had it not been for Catholic nuns risking their lives to protect people who were not even of their faith. Why? Because of a Christian duty and imperative to protect the vulnerable, the poor, the forgotten. Despite what the Catholic Church might represent to some today, Christianity as a whole has, historically, done more to ameliorate poverty and privation than any liberal secular democracy. It has provided comfort for those who are confronted with their own mortality, and it has given hope to those who are paralysed by news of a terminal illness, or a family tragedy. I don’t believe in the Bible or in the necessity of organised religion, but I do believe the Bible is a text that propounds brotherly love, egalitarianism and tolerance above all else when dissociated from its perverters and the Machiavellian opportunists. It says more about the person who formulates a hateful and intolerant understanding of a story or verse which he extracts from the Bible in order to use it to further selfish ends, or reinforce his pre-existing prejudices, than it does about the concept of religion itself and the ideas attached to it. These malefactors should be attracting the disdain of atheists like Dawkins, not the pure ideas of religion contained within Scripture. One more thing I wish to put to you is to imagine a world without Descartes, Hume, Lacan, Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, Foucault, Heidegger even Subcomandante Marcos among others. How much would we have lost from the Intellectual and Philosophical Bank of Mankind? There is a reason i ask this question and choose these particular figures. There is one thing that connects them; A shared experience that was significant in their intellectual development. They were all educated by Jesuits. Far from being inherently evil and contributing nothing of value to humanity, religion and religious orders have educated many of the cerebral giants of history: men and women who have been principal actors in the advancement of human learning and acquisition of knowledge.

What really can be considered irrational?

I woke up one morning to a stream of Dawkins tweets and retweets. Nearly all of them were the source of a logical fallacy – either a ‘straw man’ or blowing a perceived tenet of the Christian faith to ridiculous proportions for the purpose of mocking it and making it appear absurd. It is a curious tactic for a man of science; someone who professes to have the entire arsenal of reason, rationality and empiricism behind him, attacking an institution in such an asinine and insular manner.  There are much more adroit methods to reveal the folly in some of the extraordinary claims and beliefs of all the known religions -most of which are taken seriously only by the overzealous (again this is an example of Dawkins being selective and trying to portray crackpot evangelists or the blindly pious as ordinary adherents of a religious order). But this is not the aspect of Dawkins’ aversion to religious fervour or contemplation of a God with which I take umbrage. It is the fact that with all the complexities of the Universe: how it is ordered, the natural laws that govern it, its provenance, things we cannot see, but science and experimentation tells us are there, thinks we cannot see but science suspects may exist in theory; the Universe’s infinite galaxies containing infinite possibilities of which science knows little. And yet it is, oddly, the belief in an existence of a Supreme Being (in any form, whether a transcendental creator force, or a God akin to the deist or pantheist interpretations) that Dawkins finds most ‘irrational’, and he has decided to expend all his energy on ridiculing and destroying. Of all the possibilities of the world, why, and on what basis, is it this one which is so offensive and absurd to him and others? It is no more fanciful to believe that we are all travelling toward the ultimate culmination of ‘God’s plan’, than it is to believe that we exercise unconstrained free will and create our own destiny. It cannot be argued beyond reasonable doubt in either case.

Dawkins also neglects, or is not aware, that during the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, scientific minds much more brilliant than his, especially Sir Isaac Newton, used their new discoveries of the Universe and natural laws to glorify God and as proof of his existence and his hand in their design and formulation. He also neglects that present-day men and women of science are paradoxically drawn toward religion, or at least God, with the more they learn about the Universe – its complexity and perfection – because often the only way they make sense of their discoveries and knowledge is through the existence of a Supreme Being. It is important to remember than science fails to explain so much about the physiology of organs of our own bodies let alone of the Universe. For example, a cosmologist,Paul Davies, has likened the ‘multiverse theory’ to God: in essence, it – like belief in God – requires “a leap of faith”. Science, and its independent but related disciplines, has many untestable hypotheses and theories, and many are accepted as Gospel. But even many which can be tested or ‘proved’ often only result in explaining how A becomes B, but rarely can it elaborate on WHY.

Incidentally, I wonder what Dawkins’ answer is to the fact that the provenance of the Big Bang Theory lies not in the hypothesizing of twentieth-century physicists and cosmologists, but instead resided in the mind of a thirteenth-century English bishop named Robert Grosseteste. Like many medieval ecclesiastical figures, Grosseteste was a scholar and man of supreme intellect. Theology has given us many philosophers, academics and statesman, but it may surprise some to know that it has also brought visionary scientists to humanity. Grosseteste played a vital role in the development of scientific method: introducing the notion of controlled experiment, to the West, and relating it to demonstrative science. He was the first of the scholastics to fully understand Aristotle’s vision of the ‘dual path of scientific reasoning’. In his treatise De Luce (On Light) he explored the nature of matter and the cosmos. Centuries before Newton postulated gravity and before the Big Bang Theory as we know it today, Grosseteste described the birth of the Universe as derived from an explosion of light and crystallisation of matter to form the stars and planets we see in spheres surrounding the Earth.

New > Old?

Now I don’t subscribe to Newton’s beliefs behind his discoveries, or the sentiments of some scientists who struggle with the questions raised above. But they serve to illustrate the point that the new does not always trump the old. You see, mean like Dawkins believe that because we know more now than we did 200 years ago, it automatically means that we know better, and that 21st-century beliefs regarding the world and how it works are inherently more valid just by virtue of being ‘new’. This is a tactic Dawkins employs because it does not necessitate him, or any other atheist, having to properly substantiate or validate his claims and beliefs (again I must point out I am not addressing the creationists vs evolutionists debate in this blog). It is programmed in our language, and our understanding thereof, that ‘new’ is better than ‘old’. This engenders a false notion of inevitable progress in ways of thinking and ways of conceiving the world around us, as we travel forward through time. This is simply not always the case.

Kurt Goedel and Modal Logic

It may surprise many who read this,  but logic has been used to prove the existence of a Supreme Being since the eleventh century. It originates with St Anselm of Canterbury, and in its simplest form the argument follows this course:

God, by definition, is that for which no greater can be conceived. God exists in the understanding. If God exists in the understanding, we could imagine Him to be greater by existing in reality. Therefore, God must exist.

Kurt Goedel, a twentieth-century Austrian mathematicianstudied a more elaborate version of this argument, one which was put forward by Gottfried Leibniz, in his attempts to clarify his ontological argument. Goedel had a fourteen point system behind his philosophical belief; the most pertinent, in relation tot he ontological proof are:

4. There are other worlds and rational beings of a different and higher kind.

5. The world in which we live is not the only one in which we shall live or have lived.

13. There is a scientific (exact) philosophy and theology, which deals with concepts of the highest abstractness; and this is also most highly fruitful for science.

14. Religions are, for the most part, bad—but religion is not

The argument proceeds from the following axioms and definitions:

Definition 1: x is God-like if and only if x has as essential properties those and only those properties which are positive

Definition 2: A is an essence of x if and only if for every property B, x has B necessarily if and only if A entails B

Definition 3: x necessarily exists if and only if every essence of x is necessarily exemplified

Axiom 1: Any property entailed by—i.e., strictly implied by—a positive property is positive

Axiom 2: If a property is positive, then its negation is not positive

Axiom 3: The property of being God-like is positive

Axiom 4: If a property is positive, then it is necessarily positive

Axiom 5: Necessary existence is a positive property

Axiom 1 assumes that it is possible to single out positive properties from among all properties. Goedel comments that: “Positive means positive in the moral aesthetic sense (independently of the accidental structure of the world)… It may also mean pure attribution as opposed to privation (or containing privation).” (Goedel, 1995). Axioms 2, 3 and 4 essentially state that positive properties form a primary ‘ultrafilter’.

From these, and other, axioms and definitions, the theorems below are proven:

Theorem 1: If a property is positive, then it is consistent, i.e., possibly exemplified.

Corollary 1: The property of being God-like is consistent.

Theorem 2: If something is God-like, then the property of being God-like is an essence of that thing.

Theorem 3: Necessarily, the property of being God-like is exemplified.

[The ontological proof is formalised and expressed symbolically at the following link: http://www.logic.at/staff/bruno/Papers/2013-GodProofAbstract.pdf ]

The thereoms and axioms that Goedel includes in the ontological proof are assumptions and cannot be proven if they stand alone, but because they can be expressed as mathematical equations, this means that they can be proven.

Goedel’s ontological proof was received with ebullient fanfare because, in the scientific community, the real newsworthy component was what could now be achieved in scientific fields using computers, for example, not that mathematical logic had proved the existence of a Supreme Being. This is largely because, as mentioned above, the argument of God’s existence through such similar methods was not new. Of course, I do not believe this will convert atheists, and nor should it, but it just illustrates the point that belief in a Supreme Being is not as ‘irrational’ as people like Dawkins will have you believe. Its possibility is supported by mathematics and to an extent can be given credence with observation in the context of what science can and, more importantly, cannot tell us.

To finish I would like to ask you to again forget the whole creationism vs Big Bang and evolution, because i feel i should recapitulate that I am only arguing for the existence of a Supreme Being (and a non-creator one at that). I can understand the scorn and derision aimed at those who still preach the ‘God created the world in six days’ narrative, and therefore I am not interested in cosmology, but purely concerned with theism vs atheism. I have a problem with the way atheists argue their corner and the methods they employ to belittle the beliefs of others, and can sometimes bully and pillory such believers. Atheists, and many theists too of course, seem reluctant, even resistant to acknowledging the validity of both sides of the debate. A lot of atheists and repudiators of religion will not be aware of much that has been delineated above, but they will be less inclined to accept these observations and historical facts which seriously contest their strongly held assumptions. I think their struggle is an example of cognitive dissonance – as much as it is for some religious theists who occupy the other side of the coin – but is also due to the fact that it is now so difficult to extrapolate the sensible arguments in favour of the existence of a Supreme Being from the religious fairy tales that so many Christian fruitcakes take literally and steadfastly clutch on to. This fusion of the credible and the fanciful has caused atheists to reconstitute the science vs religion argument as a ‘Facts vs Superstition‘ argument, which isn’t the case at all when you subtract the crackpots and fundamentalists. I think it is time to redress the boundaries of the debate and eliminate the atheists’ lazy logical fallacies and predilection for ridiculing notions of a God that are based on superficial readings and understandings of Scripture and exaggerating the importance of marginal aspects of religious teaching for the purpose of further denigration on specious grounds.

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Why the Public Despise British Politics: An Embarrassing Day for Parliamentary Democracy in the UK

Nothing could better illustrate the reasons behind British public’s disengagement with politics, and their disdain for politicians, than the proceedings that took place in the House of Commons on December 18th, 2013. MPs of the two big parties in the chamber should be in a state of perennial  embarrassment when they witness their leaders repeatedly strike each other with ad hominem blows emanating from selfish party politics, personal animus and a desire to score cheap points. But today’s exchanges during Prime Minister’s Question Time plummeted to a new low in the squalid pit of farce and foolishness. Hugo Rifkind wittily conveyed the scene of raucous guffawing, baiting and jeering when he tweeted:

https://twitter.com/hugorifkind/status/413284308850589696

Now this behaviour is not uncommon, in fact it is what passes for parliamentary rectitude these days. We have ridiculed it countless times and castigate the members for their puerile antics. Eruptions of boorish heckling begin the nanosecond after an MP falters momentarily while delivering a question or comment. The sequence is reminiscent of that particular brand of internet troll who has nothing original or worthwhile to contribute, but always pounces on another forum member’s spelling error, labelling them a ‘dumbass’, while ignoring the content of what is expressed and its merits. It is quite astonishing that these bullies are elected representatives of the world’s seventh largest economy. It would be funny if it wasn’t for the depressing reality that these infantile performances are not isolated, and have become so routinized as to now be accepted practice in the Commons. The Tory and Labour party now have designated provocateurs sitting on the steps opposite their political foes, with the sole duty of antagonising the opposing front benches in order to affect a slip up, or disconcert whichever member is speaking. Be it the Prime Minister or the oft-targeted Ed Balls, a consummate heckler in his own right. Now back benchers have always been vocal antagonists, fomenting disquiet in the chamber, but when party leaders are actually sanctioning the crude tactics of these step-dwelling wind up merchants, they are essentially holding the whole process of parliamentary politics in contempt and laying a big, brown stinky one on the very foundation stone of democracy. When elected representatives cannot even make their voices heard over the jeers, and buffoonish members attempt to obstruct debate and the opposition’s right to scrutinise and challenge the incumbent government, then the whole democratic process is soiled at its very basic root. Over 250,000 Britons tune in to PMQs every week (this is lunch time in the middle of the week). It’s good material for comedians and satirists, but the British public are not amused. When they see the House of Commons erupting into a den of jackals ripping each other to shreds, and the despatch box converted into a pulpit for cheap political potshots it evokes nothing but anger and despair.

Wednesday’s exchange

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zV9Vf9uw9uw

between the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband was typical, and just about like any other. Cameron, as he often does, won the battle of (dim)wits, but as always it is a battle of which the spoils are few and worthless. Both leaders reel off cherry-picked statistics to buttress their political agenda. Miliband hops from issue to issue, desperately scrambling for something with which to wipe away the smugness of the Tory front bench. While Cameron invariably evades the specific question asked and falls back on his usual refrain regarding the economy (‘it’s growing’), the deficit (‘it’s falling’) and unemployment (‘a million more jobs’) before sounding off with a personal jab at ‘Red Ed’s’ shortcomings as a leader, and deriding the ‘nightmare’ shadow chancellor. We see the same play over and over. But Wednesday’s shouting match eclipsed previous embarrassments and descended into a pointless back and forth tirade over each party’s unrealised predictions regarding the economy. Miliband denounced Osborne’s previous forecast of eliminating the deficit by 2015, which the chancellor has admitted will now not be achieved until 2018. While Cameron took swipes at Labour’s ominous warnings of one million job losses and triple-dip recession. The “you got more things wrong than me!” “No! You got more things wrong than me!” routine looked like two schoolboys arguing over whose dad could beat up whose. This is not what Prime Minister’s questions is for, it is not how the leaders of the two largest parties should behave, and it is certainly not a sequence to which the electorate should be subjected. The Commons, during this thirty minute exercise, is supposed to be a forum where the government is questioned, challenged and made to answer for its time in office thus far. It is not a place for petty squabbles and playing the blame game to score trifling political victories.

The second humiliation of the day for British politics, and especially the Tories, came during the food banks debate. This debate has been long overdue following the huge explosion in the number of citizens – of the seventh richest country in the world – using food banks and soup kitchens to subsist. Over 500,000 people in the UK now rely on the generosity of strangers, thanks in no small part to the stringent policies and welfare cuts of the coalition government, which are forcing the poor and working poor into further poverty and privation. You would think the proliferation in food banks, at a rate not seen since the war, would be a cause for concern for the government, and that the Tory MPs would wish to participate in a dialogue over how to better assist those who are dependent on food banks for sustenance. But clearly, the right side of the chamber does not elicit much empathy and solicitude for these poor souls who are bearing the brunt of austerity. The discrepancy in attendance, for the debate, between Conservatives and Labour was stark; there must have been fewer than 30 Tories and Lib Dems present for the majority, while Labour enjoyed an admirable sized cohort. The shameful tableau was compounded when  IDS scuttled out of the debate halfway through along with the DEFRA minister, leaving only the Minister for Volunteering to provide responses or a defense to the myriad assaults Labour mustered against such a lamentable situation existing on such a scale in British society. It appeared the Department for Work and Pensions Secretary had grown tired of squirming in his seat, and consequently decided to leave his conscience on the front bench, as Labour MP after Labour MP read out letters from their constituents who had been forced to endure the humiliation of resorting to food banks in order to feed themselves and their children. The most damning indictment of Tory policy – and the note on which I will end this blog entry – came when an MP related how a constituent wrote to her describing an occasion whereby her children asked the food bank for a box of cereal and a portion of drinking chocolate “as a treat”. It’s a shame more Parliamentary party members could not bother to be present for that poignant, and much needed, reality check.

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An Exorcism of the Mind

It has been three months since I last wrote. Aside from a lengthy and very  personal confession I put down to paper while I was sitting in an empty dorm in the twilight of Kampala. The call to prayer from the Colonel Qaddafi National Mosque was sonorous in its rhythmic solemnity and crystalline beauty; individuals and communities suppressing their quarrels and renouncing their differences to join together in a deeply personal and sacred intimacy that has no parallel in Christendom. When the hypnotic wails of the muezzin rang out from minaret at 7pm and again at midnight I would immediately shut off my music, and just lie there, in silence, listening to that precious ode to unity, love, veneration, peace and harmony. It is probably one of the few moments in all organised religion that is still pure in its innocence and sincerity. I was always driven to profound introspection when I heard Il dolce suono of the adhān, for the very reasons I elucidate above. I am always impelled to think deeply, and write candidly and passionately when moments of beauty touch my soul. If beauty be not the stirrer of the immortal soul then what is? It was the call to prayer that was the impetus behind my aforementioned ‘confession’ which I dare not publish. I intended to do so, but – contrary to the belief of those who know me – I am far too fragile to make myself so vulnerable. Its only natural for humanity – especially the male half – to wish to erect a degree of pretense to insulate them from the hypocritical judgements of others and help us survive the lies we live and live around. By now it must be a clear I had a slight existential episode while in that chaotic city in Uganda. But it is the one I am enduring right now which has provoked me to pour my current state of mind on paper and recall my edifying experience in the Masindi dormitory of the Tuhende Safari Lodge, which has become kind of a watershed moment in my life. It was more cathartic than any symphony or Shakespeare tragedy. What I am…suffering is not the right word but it is the first one that comes to mind – now hasn’t yet reached its apogee but I am hoping it will become equally enlightening.

I have become disillusioned with my university education and with the conventional route from graduation to graduate programme and full-time employ and so forth. I have recently submitted my first assignment of my final year and it is by far the worst piece of trash I have written, completed with the least amount of effort and the most minimal of engagement with the topic and themes I must clumsy attempts to explore. In part this is because the seminar tutor is the worst imagineable, offering zero support, no encouragement and perfectly content to run a weekly 2 hour seminar that is  intellectually barren and devoid of enthusiasm which serves only to let the minds of the promising students who attend the seminar stagnate. But it is also due to the fact that I am sick of jumping through fucking hoops for nothing more than a piece of paper that guarantees me nothing. All this box ticking and mechanical need to pass empty, vacuous tests leaves one unfulfilled and forever a negligible entity. I am frustrated. I want to do something of substance with a perceptible end product and worldly impact. I don’t want to be an automaton who, like many of us, goes through life by the book, step by step from birth to education to an inconsequential 45+ years of merely earning a living and then decaying in the ground with only a stone to testify to my existence. This is a common anxiety for most I guess but it always feels more acute when you yourself are experiencing it. The hoops and box ticking do not end with the dissertation at university. The graduate opportunity you secure, if you’re lucky enough, involves an even more extensive array of stages to be completed within strict parameters, and then your working life continues forward in a stringent regimen where ascendancy requires more hoops to be jumped through and more boxes ticked. Restricted is an outlet for self expression, or the opportunity to make a mark, to put your own unique stamp on the world. We are constrained. Only a privileged few have the opportunity to give their lives meaning and purpose. The rest of us are cogs in a machine that only upholds the status quo; we exist to satisfy and please others,not ourselves. We remain unfulfilled and carry around a huge void inside. How can anyone be satisfied with 86 years of that for a life? It may all be a different story if it wasn’t for the chicanery of the ruling powers and the mass media in keeping us distracted from the real issues and deadening our minds with the nefarious tools of television, advertising ad hoc genus, which further detaches us from our true selves and stifles introspection and critical thinking. But I don’t want to get all Chomsky here; broadsides against the insidious effects of the maintenance of power relations and manipulation by the media are ubiquitous. But now I am growing tired of passive acceptance of what seemed to be the inevitable. An exorcism of my mind has be fomented once again by my rediscovery of the mindlessness and lack of human mission in how the world works at present. I do not wish to be forced to scale the same route that is set for everybody else. I do not see the merit in having to be disingenuous and untrue to myself in order to satisfy the arbitrary mores and standards of the powers that be, just so I can be ‘rewarded’ with a job I hate, working for interests, wealth and dysfunctional world of an elite clique who are representatives of blood-stained, squalid, iniquitous nothing. I want a kind of freedom that, as yet, none of us are granted.

As with the ‘confession’ I did not wish to leave myself and my humanity completely exposed to a virtual public. I am a man after all and we have inhibitors built into us so that we do not reveal ourselves entirely; it precludes us from being vulnerable. I believe there are things you should keep for only God’s ears. It could be the difference between salvation and damnation. Your soul is something the devil (and I use the term as a metaphor) cannot touch unless you allow it. Therefore, my candour has only gone as far as I wished it; it is this exercise of illusory control that helps me to confirm my self-autonomy, I guess. To give me the false impression that I possess any discernible power over my present, future or even past. Even the lives we have lived so far are not ours. My 27 years on this earth are nothing more than a vapour, an ephemeral mist that belongs to no-one, it is a litany of the abstract, of memory, lost forever.

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Ruminations: Part 1

I. I am strolling casually, absent-mindedly and without object – a luxury I privileged to enjoy here in the heart of Africa – while buses, lorries and automobiles race past with purpose and haste. I settle on a thought, morbid I admit, that with two steps to my right at the opportune moment one has the definite power to impact so many lives that are close to him. In two innocuous movements of the lower limbs he can end his days, thus turning those harmless steps into a heinous and selfish crime against humanity; thrusting dozens, or even hundreds if he is truly blessed, into chasms of despair and eternal anguish. But for one solitary individual, if his disposition is thus, it can be a simple act to end great sorrow, or raw turmoil residing in one’s breast. Although I myself am not of this disposition, at that specific moment in time, I find comfort in that thought.

II. Two years of my three years at University have passed, and I have found that a certain variety of young students talk much, but say little.

III. I sincerely believe that, after love, music is the most constant and unfailing solace that one can fall back upon during even the most turbulent moments of any life. The most ethereal of cathartic journeys are cradled in the strings of violins; tender tremblings of piano keys are the stairs that lay the route toward a purge of the distress reposed in the soul, while the euphony of a soprano can eclipse the melancholy burrowing into the troubled mind. Music ignites an iridescence that cannot be extinguished, but may merely recede to a flicker of a flame until a melody is recalled at the moment of need, and then soul erupts once again into a rainbow of flash and ecstasy.

Music is a refuge, a sanctuary from the deluge of tragedies, the chronic nightmares of portent and the pits of despair that line all our lives at several intervals.

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Rwanda: About a Boy

It is so soon after my last entry, but I feel as if I have a lot to unload from my mind following a morning spent at an orphanage near to where I am living. The building is largely visited by young people who were infected with HIV contracted from their parents at birth. Others had either been abandoned, or been the victims of tragedy. I had brought a few small gifts to give out, soon realising that the clothes a friend had donated, for me to hand out, were too small for all the children and young adults who were present. (However they will find a good home on the bodies of children at the Maternity Health Clinic). I was watching the majority of the boys enjoying one of my offerings – a red football – when my attention was directed towards a young boy, looking forlorn and completely unnoticed, sat alone on the grass, absent-mindedly fiddling with his knee. The boy was in a deplorable condition compared to the other children: his clothes were filthy and his trousers so tattered that he constantly had to keep one hand on the waist in order to keep them up. I would spend the remainder of my time at the orphanage solely with him.

After exchanging greetings with the very shy and quiet five year old, I was apprised of his story so far by an older boy. His name was Lukara and he visited the orphanage a few times a week, mainly for food. This revelation seemed incongruous given that it seemed no-one displayed much solicitude for the boy, and he was not included in the singing and dancing activities inside the building itself. But I don’t want to unfairly speculate as to the reasons why this is so. Perhaps Lukara prefers being left to his own devices, and as will be revealed in a moment, he has had plenty of practice at this. The older boy showed sympathy for the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Lukara’s past as he conveyed it to me. His mother, presumably unable to afford to care for him (in Rwanda abortion is not permitted under any circumstance) had been abandoned inside a box on the side of the road – a common occurrence I am told. He was found and taken in but his situation is still precarious. He gets his only decent meals from the orphanage on certain days, Saturday being one of them. Otherwise he has to rely on the generosity of others. Where he sleeps was not clear to me even after it was explained. Possible a village resident or whoever found him in that box gives him shelter.

I had only one cuddly toy in my bag, to give to the child I thought needed its comfort and companionship most. Naturally I conferred it on poor Lukara. He was reluctant to accept Boofie (as the manufacturers had anointed him) at first. I suppose maybe he is not accustomed to random acts – however small – of kindness. Eventually, with an adorable smile, he took the soft, little stuffed dog in his hand. I took a photo of him with his second new friend of the day and watched him play with it before I was told that the other children had prepared a performance and that I had to come inside. I asked about Lukara and was told that he is OK where he is. The performance was full of high spirit and mirth but I couldn’t concentrate, and kept glancing, searchingly, out the window to see what Lukara was doing, and if he was still outside, on his own again. I couldn’t see him but kept intermittently staring outside, hoping to see the top of his head and his hand curiously waving Boofie. I welled up during a sit down period of the children’s performance as I recollected what I had been told about Lukara, and his abandonment was suddenly made so clear and vivid to me when I recalled how I had first spotted him, sitting alone as if he were unwelcome guest. A little tear fell but I maintained myself for the sake of propriety during such a kind and welcoming effort delivered by the children. As soon as they had finished I went straight outside to search for Lukara and he was located around the back near the kitchen, tenderly picking off grass and slapping dust off of Boofie’s woven coat.

Not long after the dancing and singing, it was lunch time. Myself and the girls delivered the plates of rice, beans and vegetables to the children inside, but Lukara was not among them. Again, I asked after him and why he was not eating. They told me he does eat, but outside by himself. One of the adults gave me a plate to take to him, which I did and, crouched beside him on a chair that was far too high, I handed it to him and watched him silently spoon the rice into his mouth. I was then advised to go and collect my own plate of food, assured that Lukara was fine as he was. I spooned rice onto my plate and sat down with the rest of the volunteers and a new German girl we met called Miriam. I was pensively scooping the rice into my mouth, not looking up from my plate and decided to ask why Lukara ate alone and not inside. I was told it is because he is shy. I sat pensive for a minute or two more but was not satisfied with that answer. I excused myself and took my plate outside to go and eat with Lukara. I laughed to myself that it was a bit of a wasted journey. Lukara barely noticed his dining companion, he was immersed in his mound of food. But even if my presence was only vaguely perceptible it would erase the worry of appearing rude for leaving the building, if it meant having a clear conscience. I couldn’t stand the idea of him eating on his own; it seemed he was forever on his own from the moment I laid eyes on him. After quickly dispensing with my own meal, I watched Lukara. Part mournfully, realising this might be the only sufficient meal he has a week, part gleefully, as at one point he held a spoon carrying about six grains of rice to Boofie’s lips. “Yes Lukara, well done, take care of him.” I was beckoned back into the building a second time, wary of leaving Lukara again, but the ‘mum’ of the orphanage was plenty of company for him now, especially as he was transfixed on his plate anyway.

Once food had been eaten Lukara was back at the front of the house with a few new inquisitive children close by. I spoke to them in the only Kinyarwanda I really know, and they were smiley and polite and curious like all Rwandan children when they come into contact with an umuzungu (white person). One snatched the cuddly toy from Lukara’s hand and tried to hand it to the younger sibling she was holding, before it was taken again and appraised by another curious individual. I politely said “oya!” this is for Lukara, and handed it back to him. We sat down together on the portico, when one of my Rwandan counterparts, and friends, suggested I put the – up to now useless – clothes to good use, and give a top and trousers to Lukara. The fact they were made for female toddlers was not an issue apparently, so I chose the most gender neutral looking pair and he was taken in private to see if they fit and to change. They outfit was certainly snug, but it was perfectly adequate. The transformation looked radical; he no longer resembled the child in the sad story I had heard. Though I soon realised that it wasn’t the clothes that engendered any kind of alteration. As I looked back at him, and watched him walk along the road, Boofie in one hand his ragged old threads in the other, after giving him a farewell hug, it occurred to me that he behaved as if he was oblivious to his misfortunes. He trundled off, surrounded by other youngsters curious about his new possessions, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. His wonderful spirit and brave fortitude was spelled out right there at that moment in neon letters, simply through the way he took his carefree, gentle steps, and the way he solemnly interacted with the world. If I had been seeing him for the first time I would think of him to be a well-loved child, in a happy household with a full tummy every night. It would be nice to continue thinking that way, but of course I know better. And I succumb to the realisation that there are millions more like him: delicate little lives, , some of which are in the balance almost on a daily basis, without a mother’s love, protection and the basic necessities a privileged Westerner like me takes for granted. I become melancholy and bemoan my impotency to improve their lot. But I am also galvanised by examples such as Lukara who seem to possess an indelible and admirable human spirit and a stoicism that goes well beyond their years. Moment’s like these make me want to be a better person: less grumpy, for what do I have to grumble about? Less petty and cynical, for what does it do but breed resentment and perpetuate cynicism? and  less dismissive, for some of the greatest treasures bestowed on this planet, can be contained within the most simple of packages. If an innocuous child in the heart of Africa can elicit such strong emotion and some profound ruminations, then something precious and valuable can be found in almost anything. The power of that child and his life to leave me in such a state of thought gathering is both emotional draining but infinitely rewarding for my mind and soul. I will not forget Lakara, and may even make enquiries into sponsoring him. I look forward to the next time a fellow human penetrates my thoughts and my heart as deeply.

 

Yours

 

Dan

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Rwanda: Where did the Month Go?

So four weeks have passed since I descended the steps of the Kenya Airways jet and set foot on the asphalt at Kigali International; my first tentative steps on African soil (the short layover at Jomo Kenyatta does not count). The weather has been kind. It is hot here but not oppressively so. When clouds gather the temperature can drop quite dramatically and leave one a tad chilly. Today is a hot one, of the more uncomfortable variety if you are in any great hurry to get somewhere. Beads of sweat lubricated my back as I paid my daily lunch time visit to Shekina, anxious to gorge on a plate of white and yellow, that has become my signature dish (rice, three kinds of potato and cooked bananas). The diet here is high on starch, low on protein, serving me up a stodgy and lumbering start to Cuda preseason training. Since my last installment, the pattern of day-to-day life has been much the same with only minor reverberations thrown into the mix.

I am finally out of the roach motel after over three weeks of pungent odours, unusable amenities, 5am call to prayers, load, late night and incomprehensible conversations supplemented with music of interminably repetitive melodies that make me feel like I am an unwilling bystander at an Arfrican election rally. Then there are Butare’s resident DJs who begin their shift at six in the morning and pump the same playlist into the arid and dusty air of Huye’s major city. It’s as if Heart FM have exported their format to East Africa. I will miss the staff of Motel Beaux Arts, almost as much as I will miss using one of my truly useful Kinyarwanda phrases “amazi ishyushye, mushobora” (hot water, please). The solace I found in the blue bucket with its precious capacity to clean me, after another evening of interrupted sleep, was almost euphoric… I’ll miss old blooey. The only tragedy of leaving the motel is that I will no longer receive my warm greeting from the shop assistant next door, from whom I purchased my morning muffin. Our conversations (part in kinyarwanda, part English) were always a treasured part of the day, and started my day off with a wide smile, ready to face the constant stares from the locals. I don’t visit him quite so often now that I have moved into the house set aside for the duration of our project. I really should go in, get a muffin for old times sake, and then I should probably ask the character his name.

I have lost my train of the thought momentarily. I was distracted by a host of monkeys on the wall outside our house. I couldn’t resist chasing after the little dudes and taking some photos. The monkeys have not been near as plentiful to satisfy my curiosity and adoration of primates. The chimpanzees in Uganda are much anticipated, but for now, while in Rwanda I will settle for chasing after them around the house, university and forests. There usual hangouts so I am told. Ooooo, there they are again, and with a little babby. OK, concentrate… So yes, now I am in the house with the girls following the departure of our new American friends from George Washington University, who were representing GlobeMed. The extra space and time in the shower is much appreciated, but there is a bit of a void now. They were fun and welcome company during our settling in period in Rwanda. Aside from these minor developments, not much has changed since we returned from Lake Kivu. We have been continuing with visits, analysis and evaluation of data, and I wrote up our first report for the girls’ scrutinising eye. We are aiming to finish reports for a second project out of the five before our final HIV visit on Sunday, after which we will be able to begin analysis of that data on our way to writing a further report. We are having to knuckle down these past few days, to get a lot of admin squared away before a busy eight consecutive days in which we will be conducting visits and research in the field for malaria and gender equality: the final two projects we need to assess. The sense of urgency will kick in harder when we get to this time next week and the clock is ticking before our project ends and the baseline report needs to be submitted to our committee head. But we’ve gelled into a good, hardworking team and we are on the cusp of becoming a well oiled machine now that we have our first mini report typed up.

Tomorrow, before we recommence our field visits, we will be visiting the local orphanage. It is not a part of our mission here, but myself and Orla have gifts to give, and the four of us have our friendship and love to confer on these unfortunate little mites. I’m sure it will be emotional but rewarding, and time well spent. Before I end this latest communique, I have to mention the unusual coiffure I saw today. An otherwise slick looking Rwandan man was sporting a bizarre fade-mullet combo that made his bonce look like a medieval knight’s helmet. I’ll have an artist’s impression ready for next time. For the time being I will end transmission

 

Faithfully yours

Dan

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Rwanda: Coming to the halfway point

I am almost three weeks into my Rwanda development internship (but less than a third of the way into my time in East Africa) and I am relaxing on a rare day off in Kibuye on Lake Kivu, one of only three known ‘exploding’ lakes – the kind that suffocate a thousand people during an eruption of CO2 and methane which also cause violent tsunamis. It is a very strange and disconcerting feeling knowing that at any moment I could be asphyxiated by tonnes off greenhouse gas. But it isn’t something I am dwelling too much on. I still think a lot about the chimpanzee tracking in my future in Uganda :) The stage is set (Budongo Wildlife Reserve) and the date is booked (end of August). I am as giddy as a schoolboy – or as giddy as I always am when it comes to primates. The girls are excited about the prospect too. Also occupying my deepest and most profound thoughts , especially as I am in such a beautiful, tranquil idyll, is that I am not able to share and enjoy it with my equally resplendent girlfriend. I’d like to spend all of my most exciting and captivating experiences with her by my side, but sadly it’s not always possible. I got talking to a fellow Brit yesterday who had recently completed a trip that me and the girls are planning in the coming weeks. He trekked a trail at the Volcano Park in the northwest of the country; a bog standard trail that was $75 and incorporated some wildlife, volcanoes and their crater lake. However, his anecdote had the enviable ending of an encounter with two silverback gorillas, casually lounging in the middle of the trail path. The privilege of viewing these majestic creatures is usually reserved for those you can afford the exorbitant $750 price tag (well worth it I’m sure when you come face to face with these magnificent beasts). So, I will be sure to trek the same trail my compatriot did and hope that lightning may strike twice. For our last day in Kibuye we chartered a canoe, captained by a sweet Congolese gentleman who regailed us with a Congolese sea (or lake in our case) shanty. It felt so human and earthly to be using our own organic power as transport across this great body of water. It wasn’t quite ‘the old man and the sea’, Hemingway may have scoffed at our modest adventure, but I felt more a part of nature, more primitive and …alive, I guess, as corny as that sounds. I look forward to another lake voyage in Uganda. The sights and sounds in the evening heightened my experience here; a constant reminder, if I could ever forget, that we are deep in the centre of this arcane and extraordinary continent. The sound of bats squealing, insects chirping, even shrieking, at night the giant lightning storms can be seen in the distance on the lake, with the white flashes behind the sheets of clouds, though the bolts of lightning themselves strike the surface of the water in a glorious vermilion. I will miss it here, and it has been great to finally spend time away from Butare with all four girls since Orla unfortunately missed Nyungwe forest. Work during the past week has been the same routine, although we had some time with adorable rabbits (some albinos) following our first income generation data collection. Work resumes tomorrow as we visit the widows and their beekeeping collective. We only have two weeks of field visits left before the interminable task of bringing together all the admin and paperwork. But we are settling into a good system of teamwork, and we all have the focus and desire to get in done by the deadline, and done right. However, there was an unanticipated night of mayhem last weekend; a story that will have people rolling on the floor laughing at my naivete and 27 year old innocence. The American girls organised an American-themed parody complete with ring of fire, flip cup and a lot of drinking that required me to go to a bar and replenish a full crate of beer. But when it was time to return to my temporary sojourn at the motel, inebriated and vulnerable, I got chatting to three local Rwandan girls who were going my way. They invited me to a club, where I met a bunch of heroes, led by a purple flower shifted gentleman, and much dancing and joviality was had, before I finally went to bed (sleeping like a baby for a change, since the volume if alcohol blocked out the 5am Muslim call to prayer and our resident Butare 6am DJs). I related the story to the rest of the group the following day, who assumed I had retired for the evening once I had left the house. It was then that the funny/embarrassing portion of the story presents itself in all it’s shame (or glory, depending on your gender I suppose. I know a few friends back home who would give me a slap on the back). Once I mentioned the three women, I was immediately informed that ‘respectable’ Rwandan women, never go to clubs alone, unescorted. To my chagrin I had in fact befriended and partied with three conservatively dressed prostitutes. After the shock (although I did wonder wear two of them disappeared off to) I took it on the chin and settled on the fact it will always be an entertaining story to tell. Living with eight girls, soon to be just my three lovely ladies when the American girls return to their native land after concluding an nine week job well done, can be a trial sometimes. It would be a great boon to me if I could have a fellow lad, fond of the occasional male banter mixed with some serious intellectual discourse, from time to time. It was good having Mike around for a couple of days to converse with. Hopefully I will rendez-vous with him in Kampala later next month. Well my lunch has arrived so until next time. Mwirigwe

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