Saturday, February 4, 2017

Reply to Louis.... @louiskinsey

In reply to this tweet.

I can't speak for anyone else, but my personal reasons for not going to church are quite complex. I was brought up in the Church of Scotland but joined a Baptist church when I was a Divinity undergraduate at Edinburgh. I was a very active lay preacher and heavily involved in church life, but have not been for some years.

Here are the main reasons:

1. I have suffered from mental health issues in the past and these had been partly driven by what I was hearing in church. There is nothing better at lowering your self esteem than a good dose of "total depravity".

2. I don't get very much out of sitting in rows in a room. Might sound harsh, but I can do that on a bus. It doesn't have any biblical basis either.

3. I don't feel able to contribute. Its a combination of feeling that as a relatively young (49 - still the young end of most churches)  and able person I might get landed with doing things that I don't have the mental capacity to do. Even if I told the church leaders and they understood, others would think I was being lazy or aloof.

4. I may have had just enough church at work to immunise me. I do visit churches, of all denominations, in my work. What I see is universally depressing. At 49 I am, more often than not, the youngest there, and one of the few men. This is the same in small baptist, large Church of Scotland, or the average Catholic Parish.

5. In addition to #1 I was diagnosed with a neurological condition which explains why I have get stressed in social situations and don't really get relationships - including the idea of a relationship with God /worship.

6. I am divorced and remarried. Not a situation that is easily tolerated in Baptist circles. My current wife is a Roman Catholic and not comfortable with Protestant worship.

7. When my kids were still kids and I was a divorced Dad I only got to see them on Sundays which made church attendance difficult. I was picking them up at noon, so you can see the problem.

I told you it was complicated! Too complicated for 140 characters.

I am most comfortable in liturgical churches where there are no surprises, and least comfortable in charismatic churches. But my theology is more towards the happy clappy end of things. That is another problem. I never really feel like I fit in.

I see the "everyone welcome" sign outside most churches and wonder if they really, really mean that. Can they really accept people as they are? I don't know the answer to that.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Scotland will not vote for independence in a second referendum

The independence cause is now synonymous with the SNP. To a great degree it always was, but during the last referendum campaign they were joined by the Greens, the Scottish Socialist Party and lots of other organisations representing different sections of Scottish society. But these were always minor players and the aftermath of the 2014 referendum saw most of this rainbow coalition for independence collapse into the SNP. Membership grew to over 100,000. With this sort of movement you would expect support for independence to have increased, but according to the latest opinion polls the Yes vote is currently on about 40%. Even during all the upheaval over Brexit it only got to over 50% in one poll. 

By the time that any second independence referendum takes place the SNP Scottish Government will be deeply unpopular. This is the standard unpopularity of incumbent governments after a time, but that dissatisfaction with the SNP will spill over into the referendum campaign. Add to this continuing depressed oil revenue and the, still unresolved, currency issue and you have a toxic mix. It will be exceedingly difficult to get a majority for Yes second time around. Even now there are a significant group of Yes voters who have switched to No. As many as have switched the other way according to some polling organisations. It is possible that Yes would only achieve around 40% in a referendum rerun. Current polls seem to suggest this.

The problem with discussing this is that everyone seems to have their fingers in their ears while going "la-la-la I am not listening".  When I suggested this scenario on social media I got jumped on by people for whom the independence cause is a religion which cannot be questioned. They are the fundamentalists of the Scottish cause. Strong supporters of the SNP for whom independence is more important than workers rights; more important than environmental protection and, yes, more important than beating the Conservatives. Because their enemy is the Labour Party, particularly "municipal" Labour, with whom they fought many hard local election campaigns. There is no love lost between them and many in the SNP relish killing off labour as much as they do independence itself. Yet as Labour has moved to the left, the SNP has been left as the last guardians of Blairite economics, with a strong focus on private industry and profit as the key to Scotland's future, and content to be better managers of the existing system rather than trying to change it. This is something the independence fundamentalists are unable to recognise. And while the say they want to win a second referendum they are quite happy to cannibalise their own vote by refusing to engage with anyone who is sceptical because they are obviously not "true believers". Exactly the people they need to persuade in order to win a Yes vote.

Of course, this all supposes that the UK government agrees to hold a second referendum on independence. How likely is this? Well, the most likely way I can see this happening would be if the SNP gained enough seats at the next Westminster election to make a coalition with Labour the only way to keep out the Conservatives. Even if that happened would Labour be willing to make a deal? Locked in a fight to the death with the SNP in Scotland, Labour might be willing to sacrifice restricted power in Westminster in order to kill off the independence cause. In other words: don't hold your breath.

Another scenario would be if falling oil revenues stoked demands from back-bench Conservatives for the government to scrap the Barnett formula. If that was combined with greater autonomy for English regions then there may be a section of the conservative party who want to get rid of the Scottish "problem". This would be uncharted territory and might lead to a referendum with a successful Yes vote.

Alternatively, the May Conservative Government might just decide to call a referendum to call the SNP's bluff: dangerous though, given how the Brexit vote went. I can't see them really taking that risk.

The upshot of all this is that with Scottish independence looking very unlikely we need to find other ways to protect worker's rights, the environment, food standards and all the other things that are under threat from the shift to the right in British politics. This is where our energies should be rather than wishing for another referendum.


No - I don't think Scotland is "too wee", "too poor", or "too stupid" to survive on it's own. I just don't think our future should be reliant on a referendum that is unlikely to take place and which is even less likely to be won, even though I voted Yes last time.

As always, this is an opinion piece. Please leave a comment below as I have trouble keeping track of social media.

Friday, December 2, 2016

"Post Truth" and how we got here.

The thing about "Post Truth" is that we got ourselves here. It wasn't some alien invasion or a mass mind control exercise. People willingly gave up looking for truth (or as it is sometimes known "the correct state of affairs").
There was a time when politicians, churches, campaigners would investigate a problem, put forward their own proposals for addressing it based on their moral or philosophical position, then try to get the population to support it. This was how trade unions and the Labour movement began and why they then formed the Labour Party - as a way of making that voice heard in parliament.

In 2016 it works somewhat differently. These days campaigners create a narrative, a story, which makes sense as a story, but often has little evidence behind it. They then try and get a "broad cross section of society", in reality usually a handful of spokespeople, to back it and then they lobby the government to introduce laws that force people to address the issue in question. This means that laws are passed that have very little popular support, so we should not be surprised when the public distrusts elected governments and looks for other solutions rather than being forced to comply with laws they do not agree with.

This strategy is used by political parties, campaign groups and religious bodies. It is much less about hearts and minds and much more about influencing decision makers, with little debate on what we want to influence them to do. A simple parable might be that Jesus, having become concerned about the money lenders in the temple, got up a petition to the Sanhedrin to ban the sale of sacrificial animals in the temple courts. He launched it a press conference with the leaders of a number of Jewish sects including Simon the Zealot (showing that this was not a partisan issue). Meanwhile, Peter and Paul arranged a meeting to brief Pontius Pilate on the issues and try and get him to support reform measures. Not a perfect example, but you can see where the early Christians would have been had they been led by "policy wonks".

A lot of decision making is now based on showing that you have a narrative and that people are buying into it.

Is it any wonder then that people have been so easily switched from believing one narrative to believing another? They were never convinced of, or committed to, the first. It was just the way things were being run. The alternative narrative doesn't need much evidence behind it as long as it meets people's immediate desires and concerns. As we have seen with Donald Trump, you can quickly renege on your populist campaign promises.

People now choose the narrative that best fits with their pre-existing values, tastes and prejudices. One way to describe the phenomena might be, to quote Adam Savage:

I reject your reality and substitute my own.

It is now possible to believe all sorts of crazy stuff because it fits within a narrative that is not itself outrageous.

Now to the reasons this has happened. I think it is partly to do with the increasing diversity of "opinion leaders". With mass communication open to the general public the ways that people receive information is changing. We have already seen how fake news websites have influenced people's thinking during the US presidential election. Governments have also used news management to influence behaviour, for example, during the handover of Hong Kong to China and during the Scottish independence referendum campaign. People are now as likely to trust a blogger or a YouTube channel as they are a newspaper or the BBC News. This means that the likeability of a given presenter or opinion leader is likely to be a significant factor in people buying into their narrative. Some of the main sources of these narratives are people like Alex Jones, David Icke and a plethora of "researchers" who speak well on phone in interviews. If you look at some of this "alternative news media" they are actually quite reliant on material originating with Russia Today and other government's news agencies, so they are not that alternative after all. I am not saying they are wrong about everything, but they are largely immature in their understanding of how mass communication works and how easily they can be manipulated into doing the opposite of what they think they are doing.

Another factor has been the dismissal of the scientific method as a way of obtaining the truth. Two examples of this are the adoption of young earth creationism by increasing numbers of evangelical Christians in the UK and the work done to rubbish climate change science. Science has gone from being the accepted way of finding out facts to a way of finding ideas which need to be presented alongside all the alternatives so people can choose their own truth.

These changes mean that politics is in a state of instability. Labour and Conservative used to be able to rely on about 30% of the vote and had to campaign for the other 20% to get a majority. Now, as we have seen in Scotland, people are willing to vote for alternatives. In England that might mean the end of Labour and the rise of UKIP, because one narrative the left has not really caught up with, and it is more of a verifiable truth than a narrative, is that the British population has generally moved to the right over the past five years. A bit like a tectonic plate sticking on a fault line until the pressure gets too much and it suddenly lurches forward a few feet, we could be about to witness further political changes that have not been predicted.

(If you want to look further at the issue of truth try John 18, even if you aren't a Christian you can't help being captivated by verse 37 and 38).