Friday, February 29, 2008

More photos from Lapland

Reindeer! In the wild, on top of Levi Fell. It must be a pretty marginal existence for a grazing animal at this time of the year. These were in a group of five, apparently grazing through the snow on the top. The temperature was about -16C, and with windchill probably down to around -25C or so.
The previous day, there had been pretty steady, wet snow, and in the wind, the snow had stuck to everything, particularly on top of the fell (and under our ski boots). The combination of wind and driving wet snow made these remarkable snow sculptures on top of the fell, from the stunted conifers there.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Photos from Lapland

One of the reasons for the recent dearth of posts is that we've been away in Lapland for a week. Those people who are Facebook friends (and I suspect that is a substantially larger number than those people who read this blog!) have already had the opportunity to browse an album of 49 photos. But since they were well-received there, I thought I'd post some of them here as well.

We stayed in Levi, which is about 67.7 degrees North and 24.9 degrees East. Yes, that's inside the Arctic Circle. Yes, it is February. At this time of year, the length of day is not that different to here - and because the sun is so flat in the sky, twilight at dawn and sunset are both pretty long. The temperature varied, from just below freezing on one day - a really unpleasant day, with pretty continuous snow and wind, the snow sticking to everything - to -27C on the morning of the day we left. Below about -12C (-17F), you start to feel ice crystals forming in your nose and on your eyelashes - a clue early in the week that the temperature had dropped substantially from the previous day!

We managed both a ride in a husky-drawn sledge and in a snowmobile. We didn't manage to get close to reindeer (except to eat reindeer meat - very similar to beef) and we didn't see the Aurora Borealis. So I suppose we'll just have to go back sometime!
This photo was taken on that snowy, misty day on top of the fell. There was nothing to see except snow, mist and snow-covered trees. It felt completely arctic.

Most people assume that Lapland would be nothing but snow and ice - and that snow would be falling continually. We had no snowfall on about five of the seven days that we were there for, and steady snow only on one. On the days when the weather was clear, the visibility was amazing. The second photo was taken from the top of Levi Fell, looking (I think) to the southwest (towards Yllas). I think the visibility must have been several hundred miles ....

Friday, February 08, 2008

Sharia law in the UK?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has stirred up the biggest religious controversy in the UK for a long time. From the BBC News website:
Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion.

For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

He says Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty"....

... Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts - I think that's a bit of a danger".
Dr Williams is a thoughtful person, and I imagine that this proposal is because he sees religious and ethnic groups regarding themselves as culturally isolated from society. Unsurprisingly, this has led to vocal objections from people in society who already think that the cultural isolation of different ethnic and religious groups has gone far enough, and what is needed is greater integration.

I share the concern that people who have chosen to make their home here don't feel as though UK culture is relevant for them, and as a Christian, I also feel that the values of society are increasingly adrift from those values that I would regard as ideal. However, I don't think that the correct answer is to allow them - or me - to opt out of society. In fact, I am told in the Bible that I should expect to feel like a stranger in a foreign country - I'm not supposed to feel that I belong here.

What else does the Bible have to say about this? The teaching to Christians in the book of Romans is:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
This certainly wasn't written in an era where the authorities shared the values of the Christians. The Roman emperor was regarded as a God, and Christian monotheism led to a direct clash between them and the authorities. The first day of the week was the day when Christians met - but they didn't have a special holiday at this stage: Christians would gather at dawn or after dark, since they had no specific entitlement to a day off. And Christians at this stage weren't in positions of authority - they had no way of securing any sort of privilege. So instructing Christians that it was right for them to submit to authorities was not an easy teaching for them to accept.

Jesus' attitude was the same. The nation of Israel was under occupation. When challenged by Jews as to whether it was appropriate, in these circumstances, to pay taxes to the occupying nation, Jesus said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's." On another occasion, he went even further. One of the Roman laws was that Roman soldiers were entitled to demand that locals carry their equipment for one mile. Jesus said, "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."

My understanding is that this doesn't mean that you do what "the authorities" say, right or wrong. Your allegiance to God does override your obedience to "the authorities". But submitting to the authorities does mean that if your conscience leads you to disobey the authorities, you accept that they have the right to punish. This has been the attitude of Christians where there has been a clash with the authorities on many occasions since the New Testament era. For example, in the civil disobedience led by Martin Luther King, the protesters sought to behave in a way that was above reproach, but they accepted the authority of the state where their actions had led them to break the law. In the communist era behind the Iron Curtain, Christians were not prepared to obey the state and cease meeting together - or even only meet in a state-approved way - and this led to many Christians being imprisoned for their faith.

At the moment, UK law contains a great deal of religious tolerance. People of many different religions are allowed freedom of practice, and there are few points at which religious practice is constrained by national law. Whilst there is a danger when people feel that society has little to do with them, I think it is considerably more dangerous to allow cultural loyalty to transcend - not what I would consider "state loyalty" (as Williams put it) - but the order of the state, particularly in liberal democracies, where such order is effectively a social contract. You don't have to be loyal to the state to accept its authority. If you feel so strongly that the laws of the state clash with your conscience, you always have the option to move to somewhere more congenial to your beliefs.

Another issue, of course, is where lines are drawn. It is all very well to grant privileges to Islamic religious law - but why just Islamic law? Already the sensitivities of Hindus have been disturbed by the killing of a cow in Hertfordshire - surely this is a classic example of a case where religious sensitivities ought to be considered alongside state law? But why draw the line at the traditional religions? Isn't that discriminating against those people in non-traditional religions? My suspicion is that this sort of precedent will just lead to the breakdown of any sort of coherence in society, and any real regard for the structures of civil society. It is inevitable that the dominant culture will end up in a privileged position - I can't see that societies can work in any other way, and this is the case around the world. What is most important in a liberal society is that those cultures that aren't dominant are allowed the freedom to express themselves, where possible. This doesn't mean that the whole concept of society is undermined, with everybody doing their own thing. It does mean that there is a definite national or societal identity, and this is borne in mind as people of different cultures adopt that nation or society.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

You have no excuse ...

... for believing that “The God Delusion” (TGD) is the knockout blow in the supposed “faith versus reason” debate. Three books have now been published in response – one scholarly (“The Dawkins Delusion?” Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath), one playful (“Darwin's Angel”, John Cornwell) and this one. Each treats Dawkins with respect – all three authors are positive about much of his earlier writing; each draws on a much wider range of sources than Dawkins does; each dismantles Dawkins' analysis of the Bible, history and social phenomena; each rebuts Dawkins' argument that God is improbable, which undermines the premise upon which the rest of the book is based. Incidentally, the fact that this premise was invalid was the reason why in my review of TGD on Amazon, I said that there wasn't much point in reading the rest of the book. I stand by this criticism.

None of the books is long – Robertson's is just 140 pages. The fundamental reason for this is that Dawkins' arguments are insubstantial – they simply don't take much refuting. This is startling, given that many of the million-odd copies of TGD that have been sold were presumably bought by people who swallowed it whole (though a near-atheist friend of mine commented, “Pile of s***e, wasn't it? And I love RD”).

The story of how David Robertson's book came about is fairly well known. Robertson is a pastor, and having read Dawkins' book, wrote a letter in response and posted it on his church website. This found its way onto Dawkins' own website, and generated a huge response – which led to Robertson writing further letters. These form the basis of his book.

Of these three books published in response to TGD, “The Dawkins Letters” is probably the one I preferred. I think this is because Robertson is most similar to me philosophically; I find that he articulates most clearly the thoughts that I struggled to get into order whilst I read Dawkins' book. Also, unlike Dawkins, Cornwell and McGrath, Robertson is not writing from the shelter of an academic ivory tower – his beliefs are being put to test in a real world of real people. It is clearly a Christian book – even an “apologetic” one. Dawkins refuses to engage with people who disagree with him. This is one of the most significant weaknesses of TGD, and indeed of Dawkins' more recent work in general, as the effect is that it is like reading a rant, rather than dialectic. Robertson points out that the traits that Dawkins describes as being present in fundamentalists are present and writ large in his own work – mocking stereotype versions of opponents' arguments, refusing to engage with the “unenlightened”, even the crusade meetings, where the triumphs of the movement are lauded by the faithful.

Robertson's book is full of quotable passages. One section that interested me in particular was what he wrote about Hitler. Atheists, including Dawkins, pick up quotations which suggest that Hitler claimed what he was doing was a Christian crusade, rather than the outworking of atheist philosophy. Conveniently, Robertson studied Hitler “extensively”, and is able to explain the context in which such quotations came, and also from Hitler's private conversations, to explain what Hitler really thought about Christianity - “The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity.”

“The Dawkins Letters” is a readable and considered response to TGD. It will encourage and help any Christians who don't know what to say, and for non-Christians who are at least prepared to wonder if things aren't quite as Dawkins has made out, it makes a good case for at least one alternative worldview. Again, the charge of “opportunistic publishing” will be levelled – but if no response was forthcoming, then the assumption would be that Dawkins was irrefutable.
Review of "The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths" by David Robertson, posted on Amazon.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Snow on the Pennines

I listened this evening to a news report about lorries stranded by snow, including a phone call from one of the drivers. The weather has been forecast for a week, so you might have thought that a sensible person might have made sure that they had extra food, warm clothing - or found a route that avoided areas that were vulnerable to snow - or just found somewhere safe to park up until it was clear.

Instead, the driver complained about the fact that "nothing had been done", given the notice. Roads hadn't been gritted (actually, I suspect that they had - but grit is for getting rid of lying ice and snow primarily; it doesn't stop a heavy snowfall from blocking a road, and of course once a road is blocked, it isn't easy to clear); people hadn't come along and given him food; the police hadn't arrived to tell him what was happening. So there he was, stranded, down to his last litre of water with just one meal available.

Hmm. Perhaps we ought to learn to take responsibility for ourselves to a greater extent, chaps? The idea of warnings about weather is that we as individuals respond to them - not that we assume that this is something for everybody else to do. Of course snow messes up roads - it messes up airports as well, which is why pilots prepare for delays and de-ice aeroplanes - they don't simply assume that the weather forecast is for other people to respond to. The driver's comments were sadly symptomatic of a society in which people have come to expect everything to be sorted out for them - even the weather.